Microediting

As we discussed, I use microediting as a catchall for the small-bore things that people do to already-written copy:

  • Copyediting
  • Proofreading
  • Line editing
  • Fact-checking*

All of these have to do with the construction of sentences and choice of words. Macroediting, by contrast, is critiquing the overall structure and storytelling strategies of the writer.

In a traditional magazine or news environment, all of these things are done by a copy desk or editor. Copyediting actually is a pretty good job if your brain works that way; ultimately, the goal of any editor is to help the writer tell the story better. If you’ve helped someone improve a story, and both are you are happy with the outcome, it’s a good day.

Traditional copy desks are shrinking, however, and as we discussed in class, writers are responsible for polishing more and more of their own work. Between the insatiable demands of social media and staff cuts resulting in outsourced copyediting, the reality is becoming that if you want a good clip, you need to go out and perfect it yourself.

Here are some basic things I want you to keep in mind as we work on microediting. These are the most common problems I see with students; this is not a comprehensive list.

  1. Grammar
    1. Remember what Williams says about real rules, social rules, and invented rules. If you don’t, go look it back up.
    2. If you can’t figure out if something is “right” or not, ask yourself this: Is this the clearest way I can say what I’m trying to say? If it isn’t, find a better way of explaining it.
      1. One example from farther down: I was about to write “describes what you’re talking about,” but didn’t want to dangle the modifier. So instead of trying to figure out how to write “about which you’re talking,” I opted for “describes what you’re discussing.”
    3. Be very careful about using commas: They are your friends, but don’t fall in love. Use them to separate independent clauses and items in a series, but be judicious.
    4. Em-dashes, semicolons, and colons can be helpful, but simply breaking a thought into two sentences is more effectively probably two-thirds of the time. Only use these marks once (each, if you must) during a story.
    5. Agreement: make sure subjects and verbs have the same number (i.e., singular or plural) and that nouns and pronouns are deployed properly.
    6. Passive voice: I’m not one of those who believe that passive is always wrong, but it usually is. Make sure that the subject of the sentence is the most important character in the sentence/subject.
  2. Style: Be aware of the style you’re expected to follow and check it. AP style is appropriate for this class, and most publications (e.g., the Red and Black) have a local style book.
    1. Remember style conventions such as using only the surname on second reference, how to refer to locations and the correct way to use job and courtesy titles (i.e. Ms., Doctor, president).
  3. Writing
    1. Review Williams and Colomb: Use subjects to name the most important characters in sentences and stories, and use active verbs to tell their stories.
    2. Get to the point of any sentence quickly, and explain new or complex information toward the end.
    3. Use the most concise and comprehensive word that describes what you’re discussing. Fifty-cent words can be deceptive and/or pretentious.
    4. Make sure the word you’re using is correct: 
    5. Avoid cliches, both in your own writing and quotes you use from other people. If you’re not sure if something is a cliche, Google it or ask an editor.
    6. Avoid throat-clearing words, like “due to the fact that” or “in order to.”
    7. Avoid redundancies, such as double verbs or double clauses that really just say the same thing.
    8. If you write something in first or person, you need a very, very good reason.
  4. Fact-checking*
    1. Reference sources for fact-checking:
      1. Google and Wikipedia are great places to start, but all their material comes from someplace else, so they are never sufficient. Always check original sources online or in person, and if you can’t verify a fact, omit it.
      2. Don’t forget Lexis-Nexis and Factiva.
    2. First and always, make sure you spell names right and use plurals and possessives correctly. This is Dr. Suggs’s class, and most of the Suggses whose pictures you’ve seen are redheads.
    3. Avoid naked or bald assertions of fact unless they are well-known to your editor and target audience. For example, everyone knows that Dr. Adams is president of the university, but you should attribute or link to the fact that his tenure has been the third-longest of any chief executive of the university.
    4. The best way to check facts is to print out a story, go through it and underline every fact–every name, every explanation of who someone is, everything about what happened and how it happened. Verify it through established sources above, in the writer’s notes, or checking with sources.
    5. Watch out for sexist stereotypes or portrayals. The vague third person pronoun (every student should do his//her//his or her//his/her homework) should be avoided
    6. Watch out for racist portrayals.
    7. Avoid religious tropes or stereotypes.
    8. Don’t be ageist.
    9. Don’t use heteronormative language.
    10. Don’t be ignorant, and don’t condescend. When you learn something new about the world in your reporting, that’s great, but you learning it doesn’t make it newsworthy.

* Fact-checking is its own activity and subject, but I cover it here to get you to think of it as part of the editing process.

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About welchsuggs

I am an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and associate director of the Grady Sports Media Initiative. http://welchsuggs.tumblr.com, @welchsuggs

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