The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Us and them — and her

Earlier this week, The News & Observer reprinted this editorial from The Charlotte Observer. The topic was judicial elections in North Carolina. It included this paragraph:

Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

The last sentence caught the eye of a reader, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the use of “her.” The letter writer found it insulting to female voters.

I don’t think the editorial board of the Observer intended to use “her” as a slight. The writer likely intended the opposite: rather than use “him” as the default pronoun for a hypothetical voter, use “her” for balance. A quick edit to “pluralize” the sentence could avoid that issue, of course:

Rational people might just skip over them all and move on with their lives, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

That would have been my choice if I had been writing or editing that editorial. At the same time, I am increasingly open to the singular they in these situations. Most of us use it in conversation, and I have no objection to it in informal writing such as email.

Then again, I also like the royal we.

Blog break

This blog will be quiet for the next two weeks as I will be busy with other tasks. While taking a break from blogging, I plan to stay active on Twitter.

Next week, I will be in Montreal for the national conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. There, I will be an instructor at an “editing bootcamp” sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society, and I will serve as host for the Breakfast of Editing Champions.

The following week, I will be back on campus to get ready for the fall semester, which starts Aug. 20. That includes making final touches on syllabuses and assignments. I’ll also attend a faculty retreat as well as student orientations for our MATC and certificate programs.

Thanks, as always, for reading. See you in mid-August.

Q&A with Caroline McMillan Portillo of

Caroline McMillan Portillo is a reporter for the website She previously worked at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Portillo discusses how reporting and editing work at, and how majoring in journalism prepared her for her career.

Q. What is Bizwomen about? What are the site’s objectives?

A. Bizwomen is a national news website about and for women in business. We cover everything from the women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to leading entrepreneurs in the startup scene. Just this week, I had an exclusive interview with billionaire fashion designer Tory Burch, which was really cool.

The site was launched in April by American City Business Journals, a company that owns nearly 45 different business journals around the country (including the Triangle Business Journal). So we’re a young publication with a well-established brand behind us, which has been a nice extra boost.

Q. Describe your role there. What do you do on a typical workday?

A. Right now, the reporters on the Bizwomen team are each posting about three stories a day. The goal is to get to four.

I come into the office around 9 a.m. (ACBJ is headquartered in Charlotte), and usually leave around 7 p.m. When I come in, I immediately start combing other sites and Twitter for any big news in the world of women in business. This could be earnings for a Fortune 500 company with a female CEO, a tech giant’s diversity report or buzz around a high-profile controversy. These early-morning posts are quick hits, and it’s OK if they’re short. The goal is to make sure that we always have fresh content and are staying on top of the biggest stories.

Around 10:30 a.m., we have our morning editorial meeting, where we discuss what we’re working on, including what we expect to file that day and any longer pieces we’re working on. Right now, our official Bizwomen team is quite small — just me, another reporter and our editor — but we also have freelancers and can pull stories from all of the ACBJ publications around the country for our site. It’s similar to how newspapers can use wire copy from other papers in their chain.

That doesn’t mean we’ll never cover those stories ourselves. But if another market already has a story written on a topic we’re covering, we can post it and then figure out another way to extend the story in a different way, often getting multiple posts out of the same story line.

For example, when a bunch of girl-power ads came out around the same time, everyone was talking about how resonant they were. So I called Always and Pantene — the companies that produced the most popular videos — and did a piece on “The 7 things you didn’t know about those girl-power ads from Pantene and Always.” Then I spoke with two advertising and marketing experts (including one from UNC) to talk about the strategy behind the videos, which didn’t really have anything to do with the products the companies sell. With their insight, I did another post about whether these ads make good business sense.

Q. How does story editing work at the site?

A. The editing process works like this: I write the story, as well as a headline for the website, one for SEO (lots of keywords) and one for mobile devices. This is all done in our content management system.

I send it along to my editor, and she combs through the story and headlines. She’ll make changes and then will talk with me if she sees any holes in the story or wants to approach it from a different way. Depending on how much work it needs, we’ll either resolve it side by side, or I’ll work on it more and resubmit.

Q. What about headline writing?

A. Lately in our editorial meetings, we’ve been pitching stories by the headline. It was a little weird at first, but it makes for a more efficient meeting and helps us reporters focus a story before we sit down to write. Then we can massage the headline and story angle as a team.

I heard an editor at Quartz speak at the 2014 conference for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and he said they ask their reporters to think of their stories in terms of tweets. It took a little getting used to, but it’s actually a great strategy, particularly for a digital-only publication.

People won’t see our great content if we don’t have great headlines to draw them in. And on the Web, there’s a lot of competition.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill five years ago. What skills from your time there are most important in your work?

A. A few months after graduating, I was hired as a reporter with The Charlotte Observer — first as a community news reporter and then as the paper’s small business and entrepreneurship reporter. When you work for a daily newspaper, you’re expected to write a lot, to write fast and not to make mistakes while you’re doing it. The years I spent in the j-school were so critical in helping with all three.

In News Writing and News Editing, I learned how important it is to read and re-read your story, looking for typos, grammatical errors and misspelled proper nouns. Editors always have suggestions for how to make a sentence better, and they enjoy working with you on that. But if you make them spend time correcting dumb little mistakes, you could have a fantastic story and still lose some of their confidence in your ability.

I still remember getting a 50 on a news writing story because I spelled “Hillary Clinton” with only one “l.” I thought it was really harsh at the time, but now I get it. And if a mistake somehow gets past your editor and makes it on the paper or online, rest assured, you’ll get some vitriolic emails from readers. Then you’ll have to write an embarrassing correction that will be read by even more people.

The j-school also taught me about storytelling — how to ask for details that reward the reader for choosing your story — and why it’s good to spend time reading stories by writers you admire. Tommy Tomlinson, a former beloved Observer columnist and Pulitzer finalist, has been a great mentor for me, and I used to search through the archives just to read old stories and columns he’d written.

And I still think about little tricks of the trade Paul O’Connor taught me in my first reporting class, such as “draw a line down the middle of your notepad and write in columns.” (It’s faster because your hand doesn’t have to travel all the way across the page.)

Q. What skills have you had to learn since then?

A. The biggest thing I’ve had to learn since is how to really build a beat. When you first start, editors will feed you stories, but once you’ve been on the job for a little while, they expect you to find the majority of your stories. And you better not miss big news on your beat.

When I covered south Charlotte as a community news reporter, I was responsible for breaking news on school controversies, road projects, rezoning proposals and politics. So I really had to build sources, which is much harder than it sounds. It’s not like it was when newspapers were the only source of news people had, and thus the only place people sent tips to.

These days, you have to work hard to earn those story tips. People have to like you, they have to trust your abilities, and you have to keep in touch with sources regularly so they know that you care about them and not just the information they give you. That’s the only way you’ll get information first.

I used to get breakfast with some big figures in the south Charlotte community, including the city council representative, every single Wednesday around 7:30 a.m. So early. But so necessary.

When I became a business reporter, I had to get used to asking people about finances, which can be incredibly personal. How much did you lose when your business went under? How much did this investor give you to get started? What mistakes did you make that led you into bankruptcy? How much do you have to spend on x, y and z? It’s touchy stuff, but those details make your reporting stronger.

Read Caroline McMillan Portillo’s stories on the Bizwomen site and follow her on Twitter.

Q&A with Bret McCormick, sports editor at the The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Bret McCormick is sports editor at The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He previously worked in a similar role at the State Port Pilot, a weekly newspaper in North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, McCormick discusses the challenges and rewards of covering college and prep sports.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?

A. I cover 13 high schools and NCAA Division I Winthrop University for The Herald (of Rock Hill), most of it by myself with the help of a few stringers. My typical workday depends on the season, whether it’s football, basketball or spring sports, or even summer.

My hours and schedule vary greatly, which is one of the things I like about the job. But the inconsistent schedule can be annoying to significant others.

Q. You are essentially a one-person sports department. How do you juggle your tasks and time?

A. Organization and forward thinking are paramount for me as a one-man shop. I usually have four or five stories up in the air at the same time, at various stages of completion. It can be overwhelming without organization, so I try to stay on top of things with lots of lists and copious amounts of calendar entries in my phone. I have to be very careful with my phone! I’d be ruined without it.

I also have a couple of freelancers who are of great help and an older guy named Sam Copeland who works about 20 hours a week during the school year as a clerk. He puts together schedules and takes scores at night from coaches that call or email. I’d be ruined without him too.

Q. Rock Hill is both SEC and ACC territory. What challenges does that create for the Herald?

A. That creates a lot of challenges, primarily because of the rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson. I get accused of bias on a weekly basis, which is funny because I’m a Charlotte alum and have never liked either of those schools. I make a lot of effort, along with the layout people in Charlotte, to budget USC and Clemson stories as evenly as possible.

Q. Rock Hill is also known for producing remarkable football players such as Jadeveon Clowney. What’s it like covering preps there, given that tradition?

A. As tiring and overwhelming as the job is sometimes, Friday night high school football is a joy. The quality is excellent, the fervor is there and it’s the best aspect of covering sports in Rock Hill.

Eleven players from, or with ties to, York County are in the NFL at the moment, so everybody is always hunting for the next big thing. It’s one reason people here also take youth football and middle school football seriously.

The Clowney stuff this past spring with the NFL draft was also tiring, but still astonishing for a city of 60,000 like Rock Hill. City pride was maxed out that week.

Q. Sports journalism continues to be a popular career goal. What advice do you have for college students who want to go into the field?

A. Get started! Not everyone can be Wright Thompson or Frank Deford or Bill Simmons within a year or two.

Young people need to start local and work their way up. If they can get paid at the start, great, but don’t let that be a deterrent from opportunities in the early years of a career.

I was a stringer for The Charlotte Observer while in college at Charlotte, and relationships I established there have helped me get both of the two jobs I’ve had in the industry, while the experience gave me the education I never got formally from a j-school. I made $50 (three cases of beer) per game, but it was the other stuff that was more valuable in the long run.

Follow Bret McCormick on Twitter.

Writing and editing with Weird Al

“Weird Al” Yankovic is back. The song parodist who lampooned Michael Jackson and “Star Wars” back in the day has a new album called “Mandatory Fun.” Each day this week, Yankovic is posting a music video from the album on his website.

Two of the songs from “Mandatory Fun” share a “wordy” theme. “Mission Statement” takes aim at those jargon-filled declarations from corporations, government and academia. “Word Crimes” offers advice on grammar, word choice and punctuation, all to the tune of “Blurred Lines.”

“Word Crimes” has generated chatter on Twitter among writers, editors, linguists and lexicographers. Here is a sampling:

  • I think ACES has found its new theme song.
  • “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” is fun but reinforces stereotype of editors as cranks who need to get a life.
  • I always take peeves as a sign that the person truly cares about language. Which is a start.

I see some truth in each of these statements. As an editor, I like grammar and have my own peeves, but I’m also more flexible on matters of language than I used to be. And I don’t edit personal email and text messages that I receive, as Al apparently does. Calling a lapse in grammar or bending of a style rule a “word crime” makes me uncomfortable, as does the song’s scolding tone.

But this is Weird Al. It’s all in good fun. His song uses a slinky beat and clever lyrics to share a lot of solid tips for writers and editors. If “Word Crimes” helps someone remember the difference between its and it’s, then I am willing to smile and sing along.

UPDATE: More reaction on “Word Crimes” from Grammar Girl and ACES blogger Pam Nelson.

A story that’s set in agate and unfolds in a box

This weekend, I plan to attend a baseball-themed “block party” in Durham, North Carolina. The event is pegged to the upcoming all-star game between the International League and the Pacific League.

One of the bands performing at the event is The Baseball Project, which includes two members of R.E.M. Their latest album includes an ode to the box score, as printed in the sports sections of newspapers. Some sample lyrics:

  • “For a half hour every day, let the box scores have their way.”
  • “I don’t need a website recap or highlights on ESPN.”
  • “The box score tells the whole truth. That’s the way it was designed.”
  • “And when the last newspaper goes, we’ll just read ‘em on our phones.”

I too have been a reader of box scores since I was a child. The story of a game is in there as much as it is in traditional story text. That goes for sports besides baseball.

So I figure I will sing along to “Box Scores” on Saturday, assuming The Baseball Project performs it at the party. If you cannot be there, you can read the lyrics to the song and listen to it on YouTube.


Q&A with Jane Mackay, freelance editor

Jane Mackay is a freelance editor whose clients include academic journals and book publishers. She lives in Sonoma County, California. In this interview, conducted by email, Mackay discusses how she established herself as a freelancer, what it’s like to work with writers whose primary language is other than English, and her thoughts on the Oxford comma.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workweek like?

A. Nothing like leading off with the most difficult question! Because my workload swells and shrinks, the ebb and flow of my workweek varies greatly.

Taking a broad view, the typical workweek incorporates a healthy combination of work-work (the type that directly earns me money), office-type work (answering emails; participating in discussions and answering questions on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook; organizing files on my computer; etc.), and physical activity. I tend to work in bursts of 2–4 hours interspersed with physical activity (yoga, running, hiking), playing music (I play drums), or other activity that’s not too mentally taxing (e.g., running errands); I find that keeps both my brain and body fresh and working well.

Consequently, my workday flows from when I get up to mid-evening, seven days a week, on an as-needed basis. I have a routine, but not a set schedule — one of the main reasons I became a freelancer was to have control over how I spent my time.

Q. How did you get into freelance editing? What obstacles did you face in establishing yourself in a crowded field?

A. Ignorance is a great asset. I didn’t know I was entering a crowded field when I embarked on this venture; I just knew I wanted to get paid for doing what came naturally to me.

It sounds strange to me now, but until I began a master’s in journalism at the age of 36, it hadn’t occurred to me that people got paid for correcting grammatical mistakes and smoothing syntax and doing all the other things copy editors do to fine-tune other people’s writing — or that it was something I could get paid for doing. At Northeastern University, where I was studying, I was made writing coach for the journalism department; it was in the course of doing that work (which largely consisted of working with undergraduates on their written assignments) that I realized I had found my vocation.

After the summer semester, I took a hiatus from studying and ran a Craigslist ad letting the whole of the Boston region know that I was available to edit their writing. After a week or two, I got my first client, for whom I copy edited a 600-page semi-autobiographical novel. It was quite an entry into the field!

Establishing myself was not too difficult, perhaps partly because it was pre-Recession and because at first I was feeling my way, not leaping into the deep end with both feet; I still had other sources of income. I also knew I had a lot to learn (about style guides, for example!) and wanted to keep the pressure on myself light until I felt truly competent.

The bigger obstacle has been maintaining a steady workload. Like many people who work solo with words on a page, I’m an introvert; marketing and self-promotion are two aggressive alien creatures it has taken me a long time and much effort to understand and make peace with. I’m kind of getting a handle on them now! I am fortunate in that I’ve been doing this for long enough now that a fair amount of my workload comes from referrals and repeat clients.

The other aspect of establishing myself has been finding my niche(s), which is something that has developed over time. I have three main niches: academic work; fiction and nonfiction book manuscripts (I typically work directly with authors); and business communications and other documents. The one I’m most strongly established in is the academic editing niche, with a sub-specialty of working with authors not native in the English language.

Which leads conveniently to question three.… ;-)

Q. Among other tasks, you edit an academic journal that’s largely written by authors who do not speak English as a primary language. What is it like to work with those writers?

A. I really enjoy that work. A fellow editor put it perfectly the other day: “An intense enjoyment of solving communication puzzles” is a key asset in editing writing by non-native English speakers.

In my work for the journals (I now also edit a second journal that publishes authors for whom English is not the primary language), I don’t work directly with the authors. But in the course of doing this for several years, some authors have become private clients, and I particularly enjoy working directly with them. It’s tremendously satisfying to bat a sentence or phrase or paragraph back and forth with questions and explanations and alternate wordings until both of us understand exactly what the author is trying to express and we have a sentence or phrase or paragraph that’s clear and accurate.

In both cases (the journal work and the private work), it’s particularly satisfying and fulfilling to know that I’m helping these really intelligent people who have done a huge amount of research and other work to clearly and accurately describe their studies and explain their findings. When editing research papers I am always mindful that accuracy is paramount, not only for the authors, but also for other researchers who will draw on these studies in their own research. There are occasional “hair-pulling” moments, of course, as with anything, but seeing the paper published in a well-regarded journal and receiving the author’s appreciation more than compensate.

Q. You are proficient in both Chicago and Associated Press style. Care to weigh in on the debate over the Oxford comma?

A. Because clarity and accuracy are my watchwords and there is less likelihood of misunderstanding or miscommunication with the Oxford (aka “serial”) comma, I prefer to use it.

But I have no quibble with not using it if that’s stipulated by the prevailing style guide or it’s the author’s preference. In those cases, if its absence could easily lead to confusion or misunderstanding in a particular situation, I will either put it in or recommend the use of it, depending on how much leeway I have.

Mapped out

Last night, The News & Observer shared the latest about Arthur, a tropical storm that may soon brush the North Carolina coast. The Raleigh newspaper’s Tweet included this map.


As you may have already noticed, the labels for North Carolina and South Carolina are switched. South Carolina is highlighted, but for Raleigh readers, North Carolina should be. Also, Kentucky is marked as the United States.

The N&O’s Twitter followers quickly pointed out the error, some more politely than others. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the error and said it was working to repair the bad map.

carolinas-goodmapIn this morning’s print edition, the map is right. The Carolinas are appropriately labeled, and Kentucky is no longer a separate country.

The Web version of the story has the correct version of the map, but it apparently had the one with the errors posted for a while. You can tell by the reader comments, but the story doesn’t have a correction or acknowledge the earlier error.

I asked Craig Silverman of Regret The Error what the newspaper should do when a map is right in print but wrong online. His answer: Include a correction online, but don’t worry about mentioning it in print.

I agree. The N&O did the right thing by responding on Twitter, though I wish it had Tweeted a corrected map. A correction on the story page on its website is also necessary. A simple “an earlier version of this map …” would do.

We all make mistakes. It’s what humans do.

Careful editing can prevent many, but not all, errors from being published. When mistakes happen, it’s best to come clean, acknowledge the errors and set the record straight. On occasion, a dose of humor can help.

UPDATE: As Arthur passed through North Carolina, broadcasters had similar problems with geography, as seen here and here.

Coming soon: a new and improved course on alternative story forms

In 2008, I worked with the good people at Poynter’s NewsU to create a course on alternative story forms. In 2014, we are working together again, this time on a new version of that course.

A lot has changed since 2008:

  • Digital news organizations have increased their use of alt story forms such as lists, games and FAQs.
  • People are using tablets such as the iPad to read online, and the old course’s Flash-based presentation doesn’t work in that environment.
  • Some of the examples of alternative story forms in the course have become stale in design and content.

The revised course will be in Drupal, not Flash. It will have new examples and updated exercises. It will have a “digital first” focus.

The course’s goal will be the same — to select and create the story form that best matches the news and information you want to convey to your readers.

We hope to publish the new course in September. In the meantime, if you have an example of an alternative story form that you think would work well as part of the course, please let me know.

Q&A with Tracy Moore, writer for Jezebel

Tracy Moore is a writer for the website Jezebel. She previously covered the music beat for the Nashville Scene in Tennessee. In this interview, conducted via email, Moore talks about writing and reporting in the world of snarky blogs.

Q. Describe your work with Jezebel. What is your typical workweek like?

A. Jezebel is a feminist-infused pop culture site, and most of what I write for them falls under that umbrella, from reaction pieces to current events coverage to explainers about trends.

I especially enjoy doing good old-fashioned rants about the little injustices in the world (and luckily, there are so many). In a week, I’ll usually pitch three “splash” pieces — these are longer essays featured more prominently on the site — and turn those around in a few hours, or spend more time if it’s a reported piece and I have to track down experts.

Q. How do you come up with ideas for posts? Do you have free rein, or do editors at the site influence your choice of topics?

A. I scour the Internet constantly in my downtime. I read what people are posting about on Twitter and Facebook. I read a lot of comments on stories to see what really sticks in the craws of readers.

And I am lucky in that I am easily irritated about the world, which means it’s very easy to find subjects to get worked up about. In my actual life in Los Angeles, I try to pay attention to whomever the most progressive- or New Age-seeming person in the room is, because that’s how you discover that everyone is going to energy healers these days or that Bulletproof coffee is a thing (both of which I’ve covered).

I have free rein to pitch anything that is broadly of interest, and while most of that is related to women or feminism, the editors also sometimes send along tips or make suggestions for breaking items they want covered. From there, we may shape the idea a little on the front end by hashing out the angle, and I go from there.

Q. How does editing and headline writing work for the site?

A. I write both and save it in the system, and then an editor gives it a once-over and finesses if necessary for maximum appeal. After reading the site for so long, I’ve got a decent sense of headlines in the viral world, but that’s always up for tweaking.

Q. You previously worked for the alt-weekly the Nashville Scene. What are the similarities and differences between writing for that publication and Jezebel?

A. The alt-weekly sensibility — reported stories that are either interesting or important, told by voice-y writers — is not so different for Jezebel or the other Gawker sites. One big, obvious difference is the lead time on stories and the turnaround.

The only thing I did in an hour for an alt-weekly was a blog post linking to a reported story — often I spent three weeks interviewing dozens of people for a 7,000-word cover story. Now I might write 1,500 words in a few hours and only interview myself.

While Gawker sites also do long-form journalism that sometimes takes months and travel to report, the bulk of the content is blogging opinion pieces or covering breaking news with an opinion. And of course the snark is dialed much higher.

Another huge difference is the way stories are valued via the medium. At the alt-weekly (I left in 2011) it took some time to convince the powers that be that the blog or Web version of the paper even mattered (and especially that in some cases it actually mattered more), so stories you would blog were often considered an afterthought, a way of technically giving coverage to something without deeming it premium enough content to appear in the hallowed pages of the dead-tree edition.

At Jezebel, whatever gets a lot of attention is a “good” story, whether that’s a story about wage discrimination or Kate Upton’s boobs. Cute baby animals are as essential to the site as think pieces on sexism, and that’s a refreshing change to the old alt-weekly days of (sometimes) having to convince an editor that a softer, fluffier story also had merit because it was a fun read, or silly or controversial. This is not so much the case now, as many alt-weeklies’ web presence is similar to the tone and style of Gawker and BuzzFeed, sites that set the bar for newspapers in this regard.

And probably the other major difference is that alt-weeklies were/are hyper-local, whereas at Jezebel, the location of a story is U.S.-centric but largely irrelevant. Covering national news is also something I’ve noticed alt-weeklies do more now.

Q. What advice do you have for students and other people looking to break into writing for the Web — and getting paid for it?

A. I think it’s not so different than it has been for years. Writing online is still a slog. There are more places than ever to do it, which is great, but the majority of job listings out there are not compensated at all or very poorly.

If it is at all possible, be willing to do it for popcorn long enough to show you’ve got the chops. There is real leverage in that.

It’s also important to know what you’re after — to build a byline? To land a magazine job? A book deal? Different sites offer different networks/cachet. And just like pitching old-school newspapers or magazines to freelance, know the site you’re trying to write for, the tone, the content. And make sure your voice aligns.

And finally, blogging for a living means being able to cover a wide range of subjects very quickly and reliably. So being a fast, accurate writer with a wide knowledge base is a must. Bonus points for having an endless reservoir of feisty opinions.

Follow Moore on Twitter and read her posts on Jezebel.


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