Friday, September 02, 2005

Helping the writer

One of the first things you'll hear -- or should hear -- when you seek advice on assembling your portfolio is "throw out the stuff that's less than perfect." And one of the goodliest things you can do as a copy editor is to provide the sort of line-by-line detail editing that turns an OK piece of prose into one that holds up in the cold light of the hiring editor's eye months or years later.

That doesn't mean turning a second-person lede into a third-person lede. Choosing the form of a lede is a matter for the writer and the line editor*. The copy editor's job -- along with the usual spelling, grammar and style stuff -- is to make sure that the lede and any decisions stemming from it are executed properly.

Thus, the rim rat will wave through a lede like "Look behind the buildings on Business Loop 70 and you will find Mugs Up Drive-In, the only drive-in root beer stand in Columbia, between the fresh businesses and old houses" (1C Wednesday; I'd link to it, but for some reason it's not on Digmo). There are some points to quibble about: Would "you'll" work better than "you will"? Is "between" the right preposition; is "fresh" the right adjective? But the direct address is fine.

If "you" is the reader in the lede, though, it can't be someone else in the eighth graf: "Kewley said she believes businesses run better if you operate as a family." The passive voice is a smooth patch here: "Kewley said businesses run better when they're run as families." (Right, this also means we need to look for ways to get rid of "said she believes" if belief isn't a factor in the story).

Similarly, in a feature story, line editor and writer usually have the ultimate say on whether to use given names instead of family names on second reference. It's up to us, though, to enforce consistency and ease of reading. If Kay Kewley is "Kewley" on second reference, why is Larry Kewley "Larry"? And why, in the one case that clearly requires a given name along with surname, is Kay just "Kewley" in the graf that follows on the latter? Since hers is the dominant voice, there's no need to burden the story with "Kay Kewley" on every reference. But you do need to make sure the reader knows who's on stage.

(Parenthetical) inserts in quotes are allowable in cases in which a vague pronoun needs to be cleared up. They're not mandatory; often a partial quote is clearer. But when the last words of one sentence are "root beer," it's pretty overformal to insist on clarifying the next one as follows:

For just slightly less than a dollar, customers can enjoy their house-made root beer.

"(Root beer") is our biggest drink," Kewley said.

Again, tone issues: "Just slightly" is just a little redundant. In "just" phrases and similar colloquialisms, "over" and "under" often sound better than the formal "more than" and "less than." And what's the antecedent of "their"? But the big question remains: Wouldn't this sound more natural with a pronoun there?

Always more on this topic, but the takeaway line is: Don't make writers sound like you. Make them sound like themselves, only better.

IN THE SUBSCRIBERS-ONLY EDITION: Saluting some firsts. Welcoming old pals. Stamping out 105isms. And MUCH, MUCH MORE

* I trust it goes without saying that this is an assertion about form, not content. Dumb second-person ledes should suffer the fate of "It's official," "Christmas came early for," "looks and sounds like an average college sophomore" (8A Thursday) and anything containing any phrase resembling "one of Charlotte's most important."


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