Labels and legislation

bathroomsign
Public bathrooms have been the focus of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, but there’s more to the law than that provision.

In North Carolina, two pieces of legislation have been in the news a great deal this year. News organizations commonly call one a “bathroom bill,” and they refer to the other as “a voter ID law.”

These labels are inadequate. Each law has numerous components:

  • House Bill 2, the “bathroom bill” passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in March 2016, requires that transgender people use public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. But it also forbids local governments from enacting laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in any form, including in housing and employment. HB2 also prevents those governments from raising the minimum wage in their communities. (It also stopped people from bringing any sort of discrimination claim in state courts. That piece was reversed this summer.)
  • The “voter ID” law, passed in 2013 and recently struck down by a federal appeals court, requires people to show certain types of photo identification at the polls. But among other provisions, it also reduced the number of days for early voting. The law also stopped same-day registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes from being counted. It ended a program that allowed teenagers to “pre-register” and vote when they turned 18.

These are complex pieces of legislation that present challenges to journalists who are writing about them. Including all of these elements in a headline or tweet is, of course, impractical.

But they could be included in story text or, better yet, as separate textboxes accompanying stories about these topics. That would better serve readers who want to get a full understanding of these laws.

Old style from New York

nytstylebook1962

On a recent trip to New York City, I visited The Strand bookstore. The store is a treasure trove of new, used and rare books.

One of my finds was a New York Times stylebook published in 1962. The author is Lewis Jordan; he was the first editor at the Times to compile various style guidelines into one volume. He wrote in the foreword:

If style rules do more than call attention to the need for precision in writing, they must inevitably improve it and thus open the way to clear communication. A piece of writing that is properly spelled and properly punctuated is off to a good start.

This stylebook undoubtedly helped editors at the time. But how does it look 54 years later? Here are some its musty recommendations:

  • It mentions companies (Mohawk Airlines, the DuMont television network and Gimbles department store, among others) that no longer exist.
  • It mentions technology that’s obsolete: Have you used an Addressograph or a Dictaphone lately?
  • It lists obscure royal titles such as Dowager Marchioness.
  • It advises that split infinitives “should generally be avoided.”
  • It discourages “boost” as a verb and condemns “hike” when used as a synonym for “raise.”
  • It suggests spellings and word choices that are peculiar now. For example, this statement would follow its guidelines: “I like catchup on my french-fried potatoes. Good-by.”

Other guidelines, however, hold up well. Entries on “gauntlet” and “proved,” for example, are similar to what you would see in stylebooks today.

I enjoyed reading this stylebook. It’s a time capsule of recommendations on spelling, abbreviations, capitalization, word choices and other matters. It’s also a good reminder that style isn’t stagnant.

Style, like language itself, evolves over generations. What made sense in 1962 may not make sense in 2016. And what we write and edit today may seem odd to readers in 2070.

 

 

A challenging word

boxill-headline

This front-page headline in the Sunday edition of The News & Observer surprised me for a couple of reasons:

  • The newspaper had landed an interview with Jan Boxill, one of the people connected to the scandal involving bogus classes at UNC-Chapel Hill.
  • The headline used the word “refuted,” which indicated to me that Boxill had argued successfully against the many accusations (such as these from the NCAA) against her.

Our friends at Merriam-Webster list two definitions for the word:

  • to prove wrong by argument or evidence
  • to deny the truth or accuracy of

The use of “refute” in the Boxill headline matches the second definition well enough. But it’s unclear in the story whether she has proven the accusations to be false. That conclusion lies in the mind of the reader.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against this use of “refute” because it “almost always implies editorial judgment.” With that in mind, I would suggest other verbs for the Boxill headline: challenge, dispute or deny. Each of those would reflect the tone and content of the story without overselling it.

I’m open to rebuttals.

Obama is not a lame duck — yet

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia surprised many Americans. Perhaps not surprisingly, the political debate over his successor started immediately.

Republican candidates for president such as Marco Rubio argue that President Obama shouldn’t make a nomination to the court because he is a “lame duck.” Some media organizations are using that term for Obama as well.

This use of “lame duck” warps its meaning. Bill Walsh of The Washington Post tweeted this tip:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists a similar definition as well as this one: “one whose position or term of office will soon end.”

What is “soon” is subjective, but Obama has 11 months left in office. That’s a significant amount of time.

Editors should be precise in their word choices. So let’s reserve “lame duck” as a label for Obama on Nov. 9, 2016.

Q&A with Tracy Duncan of Star Wars Stylebook

A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrive and warpdrive.
A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrives and warp drives.

Tracy Duncan is a blogger who runs the Star Wars Stylebook account on Twitter. In this interview, conducted by email, Duncan discusses the origins of @SWStylebook, common questions she receives and her outlook on the next movie in the series.

Q. Why a “Star Wars” stylebook?

A. I originally wrote a post for the blog I run, Club Jade, on common errors you see with certain “Star Wars” terms. This was December 2012, not long after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and the new movies were announced, so Star Wars was again a big part of the mainstream discussion and I was running across pretty simple errors like “Jedis” and “Lucasfilms” everywhere from Twitter to Associated Press stories. That post did pretty well, but it didn’t really find an audience outside of the fandom.

The stylebook concept really took off with Twitter. In June 2014, I saw @APStylebook do an #APStyleChat about religion, started thinking about how that would apply to the term “the Force” and that old post, and that led to @SWStylebook.

I expected it to maybe get a hundred or so followers in fan media, but it took off with standard journalists as well. I owe a lot of that to @tvjedi, who brought it up among Chicago-area media when the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was announced there not long after I started publicizing the account.

Q. How do you determine what to include in the stylebook, and what are some of the common questions people have about “Star Wars” terminology and names?

A. I try and keep it to the most basic terms, things your average person would recognize or know about. There’s so much additional material with “Star Wars,” I could probably spend weeks tweeting about various types of tanks or spaceships, but most people are only going to know or care about things that are prominent in the movies, like AT-ATs or the Millennium Falcon.

I get asked about “tauntaun” and “stormtrooper” fairly regularly. Stormtrooper can be confusing because the prequel versions, the clone troopers, have a space between the words, but stormtrooper doesn’t.

I also get a lot of pronunciation questions about things that aren’t really named on-screen, which is understandable, but also not really something I’m comfortable advising on because it’s not something I’ve particularly paid attention to. But if there’s something official out there that I’m aware of, I will try to link it. Last week, someone asked me about how to say AT-AT, and almost the next day, they were talking about it on a Youtube series produced by Lucasfilm.

Q. How do you deal with the different versions of the movies as well as “Star Wars” books, comic books, etc.?

A. I’m old enough that I grew up on the VHS versions of the films, but I can’t really get that worked up about the changes. I’d appreciate being able to buy pristine versions of the THX versions on Blu-ray, but it’s not a huge issue for me.

I do have a deep dislike of the CGI Jabba scene in “A New Hope,” partly because the digital Jabba isn’t that great, but mostly because the dialogue in the scene is redundant. Everything we learned there had already been told in the Greedo scene. (I can take or leave the whole shooting first thing, honestly.)

I was a big Expanded Universe (never Extended!) fan, mostly of the novels that have since been declared non-canon because of the new trilogy. If I hadn’t spent years reading them, I doubt I’d have absorbed enough about the series to be able to do something like Star Wars Stylebook, but I also think they’d been in a deep spiral of declining quality for a long time.

Licensed fiction is always a risk, but there were a lot of wasted opportunities and particularly by 2012, the audience that was still reading them was only a small fraction of fans. I can’t blame Lucasfilm at all for their decision — anyone who’d been paying attention knew it was inevitable the moment they announced new movies.

As for the stylebook, we actually had a big discussion at one point over whether Anakin’s nickname should be spelled “Ani” or “Annie.” Early things like “The Phantom Menace” novelization have it as “Annie” — and that’s what I went with originally — but captions from “The Clone Wars” cartoon had it as “Ani.” That was fan preference as well, so if someone asks, “Ani” seems the safer bet.

There’s also conflicting information about whether “dark side” should be capitalized or not, and if it’s Toshi Station or Tosche Station, but in those cases I also go with the more recent stuff — or I might ask someone at Lucasfilm, if it’s not on the StarWars.com Databank or something else I can check myself. They’ve been pretty consistent since the prequel days, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Q. ”Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” opens in December. We’ve seen the trailers. Any predictions on how good the movie will be?

A. My gut — and everything I’ve been reading — tells me it’ll be good, or at least super fun. I definitely think it has a good chance at pleasing a lot of fans. Here’s hoping!

Q&A with Megan Paolone, deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed

Megan Paolone is deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job and BuzzFeed’s approach to story editing, headline writing and stylebooks. 

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

A. As BuzzFeed’s deputy copy chief, I monitor BuzzFeed.com for spelling, grammar and style errors. My day-to-day consists of editing of basically any type of post that goes up on BuzzFeed (news stories, features, fun posts and lists, service pieces, etc.); fielding grammar and style questions from writers and editors; and helping to run the copydesk Twitter account we started a little less than a year ago, @StyleGuide.

My workday 99.9% of the time starts with checking my email as soon as I wake up, just to make sure there hasn’t been anything that’s come in overnight that needs our immediate attention. Our global copydesk is now seven people (three in New York, including me and our copy chief, Emmy Favilla; two in our London office; and two in Los Angeles), and adding the U.K. team that signs on around 5 a.m. ET along with those L.A. editors who are on later has put us close to a 24-hour copydesk — and alleviated a lot of the stress we used to have when there were just two or three of us.

Once I’m at the office, I’m alternating between checking email and Gchat (to answer questions, check on any drafts that editors have sent in for a read, etc.), editing in our CMS, keeping an eye on Twitter and Slack (to answer questions, pick up posts for backreads, and bounce questions/style stuff off the rest of the copy team), and monitoring the site and our live stats for trending posts that need edits. There’s a lot of “Does this sentence read strangely to you?” conversation happening among the copydesk throughout the day as we’re all working on different edits, as well as our ongoing fights about whether we should hyphenate or close up certain words.

We aim to be really accessible to everyone. Weekly we send out via email copy roundups (addressing common issues from the previous week and additions to the style guide) and copy Q&As (answering questions we’ve been asked over the last week).

We recently added a “guest editor corner” to our roundups where we let writers and editors talk about their biggest word pet peeves, and that’s been a really fun way to get the staff involved in what we do, which can probably seem tedious if they’re not interacting with us regularly. Typically once a month we hold copy classes and refreshers for the staff in the offices where we’re based (and sometimes virtually), as well as copy quizzes to test people’s skills and to see if they’re paying attention to the style guide.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at BuzzFeed?

A. At BuzzFeed, we put a lot of trust in the individual writers. Everyone has an editor whom they report to, and, especially in longer reported stories and features, who will give feedback throughout the writing process. We actually have a built-in commenting function in our CMS, but a lot of back-and-forth is also done via email, Slack, etc.

Especially for shorter one-off news stories, writers are responsible for their own headlines and deks, though there’s generally input and suggestions from their editors, and sometimes from us on the copydesk if we’re taking a look at a story before it’s published. Because so much of our traffic is social, and not search-based, we typically don’t worry about squeezing a lot of buzzwords into headlines for SEO purposes. This gives us a little more creative breathing room in headlines sometimes, because we can write a really short, two- or three-word hed, and then throw more important information in the dek. Especially for stories coming from BuzzFeed News, more descriptive headlines have also become less important for us as more and more people share “screenshorts” (not a typo!) of text on Twitter, which often contain a few sentences with the meat of a story.

We also do a lot of headline optimization and testing of different headline – thumbnail combinations, to see what shares best, what’s getting the most clicks, etc. It’s often just a really simple tweak (e.g., TK Struggles Only Copy Editors Understand vs. TK Things You Understand Only If You’re A Copy Editor). Our social and data teams have done a great job creating really easy-to-use optimization tools that work across editorial, whether you’re in the News, Buzz or Life divisions. “Optimized” heds that have been tested with these tools are always more successful, and that success can sometimes translate into tens of thousands of more views.

A lot of what we do is reading posts after they’ve already been published (i.e., backreads) and we prioritize breaking news and posts on the BuzzFeed.com homepage, as well as stories that are going viral and trending in our live site analytics. Because our team is pretty small compared with the rest of BuzzFeed’s edit staff, we prioritize whatever’s going to get the most eyes on it.

We do, however, always do at least two reads before publishing on longer, reported news and features pieces — usually anything that’s more than 1,000 words. Our edits on these longer pieces are sometimes done in Google Docs, but more often than not, we’re editing directly in our CMS, and sending along comments, concerns and questions to the editors/writers once we’ve finished our edit.

Q. BuzzFeed has its own style guide. How is it different from the Associated Press Stylebook, and how do you decide when to add or edit entries?

A. We like to say that the BuzzFeed Style Guide is a style guide for the internet. A lot of our style is based on AP and we still follow a lot of the AP guidelines, but our guide is really internet-specific and deals with words and style and issues that AP and even Merriam-Webster (which is our house dictionary) don’t delve into. It’s our attempt to standardize a lot of the slang and weird web terms that live in places like Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Reddit.

Beyond styling internet-y words like “Vine-ing” (as a verb, though “post a Vine” is preferred) and “hacktivist,” we also have pretty extensive language guidelines. Our LGBT section, for example, is really wide-ranging and inclusive. We borrowed a lot from GLAAD’s media guidelines (which we credit), but so much of it comes from conversations we’ve had and continue to have with BuzzFeed editors, as well as occasional input from readers. We’ve also just added a section on commonly misspelled names of celebrities and well-known public figures, and that’s been really helpful for our sanity, especially regarding weird contrived celebrity nicknames like J. Law and Kimye.

As for adding new entries, we do it when it’s necessary — usually if there’s a place where we differ from both AP and Merriam-Webster and is worth noting because it’s a term we use regularly. As I mentioned earlier, we’re all constantly chatting about how we’re using different terms, and if there’s a word we’re seeing a lot that hasn’t been in the guide and isn’t standardized anywhere else, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll add it. We recently added “thinkpiece,” and decided to close up “afterparty” (we’d had it hyphenated previously, and were seeing the one-word use was a lot more common).

Q. Editing for BuzzFeed sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking similar jobs or internships?


A. So my job actually started as an internship right after I graduated j-school from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. I think the single most important piece of advice I can give is to get as much diverse experience as possible, both writing AND editing via internships, college student-run publications and even freelancing.

I started as a copy editor and writer at my college paper in undergrad and got of a lot of diverse experience doing news and entertainment reporting and writing, as well as a crash course in AP style. Once I got to Syracuse, I blogged and edited for a few of the student-run magazines and websites (writing a few features and a lot of entertainment-type blogs and reviews), as well as interned as a breaking news reporter for the regional newspaper there, the Syracuse Post-Standard and Syracuse.com.

Copy editors specifically have to be incredibly detail-oriented, and must know their AP Style and grammar stuff inside and out, and I’m a firm believer in continuing to do your own writing and reading to practice these skills. Reading a lot of good writing is really important because it helps you start to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and teaches you how to think critically about what you’re reading — which is among the most important skills to have in any type of editing that you’re doing. One of my favorite things about my job at BuzzFeed is that I get to read and edit so much different content (both in style and subject), so I try to keep my personal reading habits just as diverse to keep up with what other sites like BuzzFeed are doing.

And, finally, everyone’s favorite: networking. It’s how I got my internship that’s turned into a job I really love and feel continually challenged by. Reach out to the writers and editors whose work you love, via Twitter, via email, etc. But have a reason (i.e., you loved a piece that they recently published), and don’t ask for a job, or for them to look at your résumé immediately. Personalize your emails and cover letters — people can recognize a form letter a mile away. Show you’ve done your research and you’re familiar with their work or the place where they work, and be specific; there’s nothing more frustrating than someone writing, “Tell me about BuzzFeed.”

Don’t stress! Job searching seems really daunting, but as long as you stay organized and do your research, you’ll be OK. Good luck!