Saturday, December 15, 2007

Editing for taste

"Taste" isn't the sort of thing that has a nice binary entry in the stylebook, but that doesn't mean editors should roll over and capitulate whenever writers complain that their creativity is being stepped on. Here's a tin-eared lede that should have been left out on the plain for the wolves:

DES MOINES -- Is Mike Huckabee just a one-night stand in Iowa, or is he someone Republicans nationwide are ready to marry?

Huckabee's rock 'n' roll skills notwithstanding, let's infer from the whole metaphor that the meaning of "one-night stand" we want is "casual sexual liaison or encounter" (the OED's so delicate), rather than "single performance ... esp. one given by a touring company, band, etc." And as a grouchy old editor facing this across the breakfast table, one is tempted to respond: Could we grow up, please?

Some folks appear to share that sentiment, at least a little; take a bow, Sacramento Bee:

DES MOINES, Iowa – Is Mike Huckabee just an infatuation in Iowa, or is he someone Republicans nationwide are ready to marry?

Interesting subtextual culture clash here. The story's credit is McClatchy, but the writer is from the old Knight-Ridder side of that bureau. Sacramento's an old McClatchy paper; Miami (like Charlotte, which ran the rumpy-pumpy lede but hacked the substance of the story pretty thoroughly*), is a K-R property that went to McClatchy in last year's self-immolation. Is Old McClatchy less tolerant than Old K-R of the Washburo's shortcomings? There are signs of it; the original also declares that an Iowa victory would make Huckabee "the" frontrunner, while Sacramento makes it "one of the" frontrunners.

The point, in fine, is another one of those first-day-of-editing-class sermons. It isn't your name on top of the story, true. But it isn't the writer's name on the 1A nameplate either. Editors are guardians of writers' interests, but they also guard the paper against writers' cluelessness. If you can do both at once, you're in the club.

Over at You Don't Say, the patient and scholarly John McIntyre has posted some Johnsonian (Sam, not Lyndon) wisdom that's worth stapling to the foreheads of irksome writers:

I would say … what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

*Specifically, the part about the appeal to social conservatives, which looks like a pretty important counterpoint to the assertion that overt religion might not sell in all GOP constituencies.


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