What Good Copyeditors Do: For One Thing, They Read Everything Twice

By Bill O’Sullivan

Washingtonian senior managing editor Bill O’Sullivan.

Copyeditors do more than fix grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They solve problems every hour of every day and plant the flag for good English and clear writing—a worthy goal in the age of emoticons and Twitter shorthand. They save writers and the publications they work for from embarrassment.

A copyeditor asks questions and makes suggestions that, for whatever reason during the editing process, no matter how good the assigning editors are, never got asked or suggested: What do you mean? Who is this person ID’d by only a last name? That last sentence doesn’t add much—it might be stronger to end with the previous one. This sounds choppy. Oh, and nice lede.

Avery Comarow’s Ten Commandments of Good Service Journalism

Before retiring at the end of 2017, Avery Comarow spent much of his 50-plus years in journalism as a consumer writer and editor for publications including Money, Consumer Reports, and U.S. News & World Report. In response to a March 9 post, “Editing Service Stories: Try to Avoid a ‘You Must Do This’ Tone,” he passes along the Ten Commandments he created for consumer reporters at U.S. News. 
Jack’s complaint about service journalism sometimes reading too much like a series of commands rang my bell. When I started doing consumer journalism for Money magazine in the 1970s, I quickly learned the truth of that versatile cliche, “Doing X is like playing chess—easy to do, hard to do well.” I could knock out a 600-word advice-filled piece filled with “you shoulds” and “talk to your doctor/lawyer/accountant” so much more easily, and with so much more seeming authority, than reporting the real story, which would have been nuanced to account for the fact that we live in a real world.
But a couple of sharp editors at Money disabused me of taking the lazy way out, God bless the late Bob Klein in particular. It didn’t fly at Time Inc., nor should it have been tolerated anywhere.

Washington Wisdom: Gene McCarthy on Viable and Non-Viable Alternatives

Gene McCarthy, a Minnesota college professor who became a U.S. Senator, was a wise observer of Washington politics. Here he describes the difference between Viable and Non-Viable Alternatives.

Distinguishing between the Viable and the Non-Viable Alternative is a formidable challenge. It is comparable between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms.

Non-Viable Alternatives, as a rule, are not difficult to find. They usually hang around, hoping to be noticed. They sit with arms folded and will not be budged. They tend to be stumbled over.

Remembering Bill Walsh: “Copy Editors Are Quality Junkies”

The Post’s Bill Walsh.

This was posted a year ago.

Today’s Washington Post has a beautifully written obit on Bill Walsh, a much-admired copy editor and author. The hed: “Post copy editor was a witty authority on an ever-changing language.”

The lede, written by Adam Bernstein: “Bill Walsh, a Washington Post copy editor who wrote three irreverent books about his craft, noting evolutions and devolutions of language, the indispensability of hyphens and his hostility toward semicolons, and distinctions—for the sake of clarity—between Playboy Playmates and Playboy Bunnies, died March 15 at a hospice center in Arlington, Va. He was 55.”

A Look Back at the New Journalism—What Was That All About?

A young Tom Wolfe at the typewriter.

Tom Wolfe, one of the leaders of the New Journalism movement that started in the 1960s, explained it this way:

1. Scene-by-scene construction resorting as little as possible to historical narrative.

2. Realistic dialogue which defines character quicker and more effectively.

3. Third-person point of view, presenting scenes through the eyes of a character, giving the feeling of being inside the character’s mind.

4. Recording gestures, habits, manners, decorations, looks, poses—what amount to symbolic details.

It’s Open Season on Opinion Writers in the Times and the Post

From a Tim Noah post on Facebook about opinion pieces in the New York Times:

The basic problem is that so few of the NYT’s signed opinion pieces are any good. Not that they’re “right” or “wrong,” which matters less than everyone thinks. But that they aren’t good.

I’m all for diversity, in both the multicultural sense and the let-conservatives-have-their-say sense. But the first consideration in hiring columnists and “contributing writers” should be quality.

It’s amazing to me that the most powerful newspaper in the world tolerates so much mediocrity on its op-ed page. Not a new problem, I should note.

Service Journalism: Stay Away From a “You Must Do This” Tone

The idea of service journalism is to help the reader decide what’s worth doing or seeing or buying and the role of the editor of service pieces is to put yourself in the shoes of the reader: Is the writing clear? Is the tone helpful? Sort of like advice from a good neighbor.

What I sometimes found, and fixed, was service writing I thought was almost Germanic in tone: “You must do this…”

Bernstein, Get Your Hands Off My Rolodex

No way, the woman said. And she outlasted Bernstein at ABC.

A few of her other comments:

Part Two: Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers—She Had a Feeling for First-Rateness in People

A March 4 post, “Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers—She Was Learning Not to Be Invisible,” was excerpted from the first part of a September 1967  profile of Mrs. Graham by author Judith Viorst. This post, from the same Washingtonian story, is drawn from the last part of the profile. The story was published four years after the death of Mrs. Graham’s husband Phil and four years before the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, subject of the movie, “The Post,” which stars Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Kay Graham Before the Pentagon Papers: “She Was Learning Not to Be Invisible”

This Kay Graham photo, by Cecil Beaton, was the story’s lead art.

In September 1967, author Judith Viorst profiled Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham for the Washingtonian. The story was published four years after she became publisher of the Post, following the death of her husband Philip, and four years before the Pentagon Papers, her first great test as publisher. The cover headline: “Kay Graham Blossoms.” Here are the opening grafs of the profile: