CAMP 2014: Substance over style: The new rules of copy editing

Story by 2014 Fellow Catherine Green | Photo by Hilary Sloane

Merrill Perlman and Teresa Schmedding lead a session at CAMP.

Don’t believe the hype. Readers still care about high-quality news online, especially from the outlets they use regularly, according to key findings in Wayne State University professor Fred Vultee’s 2011 study sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society (ACES).

“People aren’t going to pay for your crap if it’s crap,” says Teresa Schmedding, ACES president and deputy managing editor for the Daily Herald in Chicago. According to Vultee’s research, readers care more about grammar than style.

Schmedding and ACES Education Fund President Merrill Perlman offered a few suggestions during a daylong pre-Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) boot camp. Here are the top takeaways:

  • Let go of your own style rules and be ready to challenge tradition, which might include ignoring your boss’s pet peeves. When a colleague or higher-up declares something an ironclad rule, make this your new standard response: “That’s fascinating. What evidence do you have to support that?” If they can’t make a business case for one of your long-held, hard-and-fast rules, leave it behind.
  • The “who vs. whom” battle has become decidedly less heated. Unless you’re writing for an audience of sticklers, Schmedding and Perlman clarified, it’s O.K. to use “who” anywhere except directly after a preposition.
  • Take a breath and shrug off some of the Type A neuroses that made you such a knockout editor in the first place. Stop sweating these split infinitives, ending sentences in prepositions, beginning sentences with conjunctions, sentence fragments, “less than” vs. “fewer and “more than” vs. “over” and the passive voice.
  • Really read the material, and read it out loud. If you’re reading on screen, make a small notation – a few symbols in a row maybe – on anything that sticks in your craw so you remember to check it out later. Print out your piece to switch up the medium, or make the font huge. Double-check your first sentence and the last paragraph – mistakes crop up here when you’re writing on autopilot, or too focused on the content of lede instead of the actual words. Keep this foreboding truism in mind: errors often travel in pairs.
  • Look out for clues while skimming. Watch for coincidences – two people are the exact same age or someone has two “first” names, for example. Accidental repetition or overreaching superlatives are red flags, and number-heavy portions of text can hide small but significant mistakes. Be wary of the web when fact checking: search engines can easily confirm a misspelled name. If you have time, find a second source. And if you make major fact changes, run them by the writer to make sure you didn’t add in any mistakes.