Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A case for editing

February is turning into an interesting month in the Global War on Editing. One side is fairly confident in saying that editing is a value-added proposition: an extra set of eyes in the assembly line of journalism doesn't just make people think the writing is better or more professional, it makes them more likely to consider it worth paying for. And the other side is still throwing editors (along with a number of other professionals whose value is often considered more immediately tangible) over the side.

Since sweet reason doesn't seem to be working, let's take a real-life 1A story and put the question to the bishop: Is quality part of what you're trying to sell, and if it is, how much of it are you willing to pay for? Let's put on the copy-editing hat and begin:

U.S. auto sales in February were pacing about 820,000 higher than a year ago, but all eyes are on a notable exception to increases experienced by the majority of the industry.

Grammar first: "Pacing" doesn't work here. That's a descriptive comment, not a prescriptive one; I'm not turning up any uses of intransitive "pace" that mean "reaching a pace of," and the limited hits I find on Google look pretty jargon-ish. Granted, words tend to pick up new meanings that way without asking my permission (which is how we got a transitive "pace" meaning "treat with a pacemaker," which the OED dates to 1962), but it seems kind of rude to drag your readers into this before the coffee is made. I stumbled on the second clause as well; I want a "the" to tell me that most of the industry is experiencing the increases, not the exception. I wouldn't call that a mistake, but I would call it a discourtesy.

Sales of Ford's F-150 and the F-Series trucks were down 1% to 55,236 in February, dragging the Ford brand sales down almost 2%; the automaker's total sales of 179,673 were almost 2% lower than a year ago.

Was there a particular reason this graf needed "almost 2%" twice? Or are you more puzzled at how a 1 percent decline in the line that accounts for about 31% of sales could have dragged the whole brand down by 2 percent? You shouldn't make your readers do the math for your writers, but if they turn to the chart on 10A and play with a calculator a bit, they might conclude that without the F series, Ford's February-to-February sales decline would have been about 2.4 percent, rather than "almost 2." 

(Yes, "2%" is a deviation from AP style, which calls for "2 percent." There's no reason to think readers would grade you down for that, as long as you're consistent. I do wonder if they see the same consistency we do when we follow a rule that abbreviates "Street" with a numbered address, though not with a block number, and never abbreviates "road.")

The drop allowed Toyota to outsell Ford for the first time in six months, with 180,467 sales to Ford's 179,673. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (formerly Chrysler) also is narrowing the gap with sales of 163,586 after recording its 59th consecutive year-over-year increase. Conversely, Ford posted its eighth loss since 2014.

Here we seem to be writing for the in crowd, and as a general reader, I feel left out. I'm pretty sure it's 59 straight monthly increases over the previous year, but I have a slow coffeemaker and could use some help. By "eighth loss since 2014," do you mean since the beginning of 2014 or the end of 2014? 

Ford's vaunted all-new 2015 F-150 is simultaneously hero and goat.

Downtime at the two pickup assembly plants to retool have cost at least 90,000 in lost production of trucks since mid-2014. Ford has had a limited number of trucks to sell for nine months, said Mark LaNeve, Ford Ford vice president, U.S. marketing, sales and service.

Sorry, that's just wrong. Downtime "has" cost, not "have" cost. "Ford Ford vice president"? We're still not to the jump yet, by the way.

The Big Editing Study, published at the end of the year, has gotten some very kind and detailed publicity this week. Because news is still coming in -- coast to coast -- about human losses in the War on Editing, let me offer a takeaway point from the study. The nice stuff about editors and editing in textbooks -- the "indispensable" craft, the "last line of defense," the "heart of the newsroom" -- didn't count when the layoffs came. The case for editing is not about a return to the glory days when split infinitives shivered in fear at the clang of an unsheathed pica pole; it's a matter of economic self-interest. Readers expect someone to clean the stuff up before it's published, in the same way they expect someone to have tightened all the loose bits before they buy a car, and they make judgments about quality, professionalism and value accordingly.

Editors may have to put some of their favorite secret handshakes on the table for discussion. There's never going to be a good economic case for some of the AP's left-handed-reliever-on-a-fifth-Friday-before-the-solstice rules. But there's a very persuasive one for slowing down to examine some off-sounding grammar or arithmetic.

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