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.”

Walsh also had a monthly web chat called Grammar Geekery. Here are  excerpts from the chat that show his common sense about editing and sense of humor.

Greetings! Today I’d like to start with a task that consumes a great deal of time for copy editors: deciding whether a compound is one word, two words or hyphenated.

A decade and a half ago in “Lapsing Into a Comma,” I wrote, with perhaps less sensitivity than I’d exhibit today:

If there’s one thing the average civilian will screw up more often than not, it’s the distinction between one word and two. One of my guilty pleasures on the Web is reading Las Vegas trip reports. Several sites publish gambling pilgrims’ minute-by-minute diaries, and you can be sure they’ll contain sentences like “I wanted to get me some primerib, but they says there ain’t no bare foot people allowed in the buffetline.”

The writers and editors at The Washington Post are not average civilians, of course, but we still struggle. Dictionaries and stylebooks differ, and in cases less obvious than barefoot and prime rib and buffet line, the decision is often arbitrary. We choose cabdriver over cab driver not because it makes any particular sense, but because that’s what the dictionary says and we want to be consistent.

Reading a Post blog entry online one morning, I saw a couple of egregious examples of smushedtogether onewording, and so I decided to start a compilation of such errors in the online stylebook. I figured it would consist mainly of that class of error — one word where it should have been two — and indeed over the weeks I’ve collected a fair number of those. Punchline, floorplan, railcar, dataset, wildcard, webfeed, pitbull. All should be two words.

The big surprise, however, was that far more often people write two words where our stylebook or dictionary calls for one. Fist fight, tea house, shanty town, master stroke, boom box, snow fall, time line, school work, stop light, snow plow, pink eye, fire truck, tree house, meal time, oil men, gun fight, ear muffs, guard house, home ownership, eye strain. All should be solid.

Is this a glamorous line of work or what?

Q: stop inventing adjectives!
I suffered in silence when Taco Bell coined the word “melty” to describe its cheese. Now Starbucks has come out with “roasty” for its new Latte Macchiato. please make it stop! We already have “melted” and “roasted” to accurately describe these states of being!!!

A: Well, you know. Marketing.

Life would be duller if ad copy didn’t stray from the norms.

Q: Let me be clear
Hi Bill, Several weeks ago, I penned a letter to the Post that I never (e)mailed because I thought my position might be a bit curmudgeonly for someone just north of the Millennial cohort. Today I realized your chat might be a good venue to raise this “issue.” I’ll excerpt it below and would appreciate your thoughts. As a journalism student in the late nineties, I was taught that The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White was an elemental reference for journalists. So it has been with surprise and disappointment that The Washington Post copy editors seem to have overlooked Strunk and White’s rule to omit needless words by publishing the phrase, “let me be clear” where a simple conjunction or even nothing would suffice. This weekend’s Spirits column describes the proclivities of certain bartenders, then states, “Let me be clear: I don’t know a single bartender who is actually like that.” To paraphrase Strunk and White, if you feel you are possessed of clarity, simply state what is clear; do not give it advance billing. While politicians, including the Commander in Chief, have employed the phrase throughout the last decade, I wish that The Post would apply Strunk and White’s principles and reject its use.

A: That sounds like an excellent letter to the editor.

Let me be clear: “The Elements of Style” has some wonderful qualities, but it shouldn’t be treated as scripture. My most recent book has a chapter called “My Lovehate With Strunkwhite.” Some others are firmly on the “hate” side.

Even Strunk and White didn’t always follow their own advice. Even within that book. And I don’t always follow my own advice either, but I try to be careful about banning words and phrases.

“Omit needless words,” in particular, is a Strunkwhite dictum too often abused. It tends to result in what I’ve called “staccato ridiculousness.”

So, yes, writers are wise to listen to criticism like yours and police their tics and their wordiness, but there is no one way to write. “Let me be clear” may not be ideal, and I’m not necessarily defending the example you cite, but it can perform the useful function of making the reader slow down and take in a passage that the writer considers important.

Q: Categorically
What does it mean to ‘categorically’ deny something? And is this different than just denying it?

A: We love our intensifiers. We like our denials categorical and our poverty abject.

Q: “Powerful” Congressional Committees
This isn’t a grammar question so much as a stylistic one. Can The Post please refrain from referring to Congressional committees and their chairpersons as “powerful?” For example, “So-and-so, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee…” Powerful implies the ability to get things done, and in these days of gridlock, who can truly claim to have power? Thank you.

A: Interesting point.

You know what else is powerful? Antioxidants. It’s always powerful antioxidants.

Q: Why not rename the time in women’s lives when they stop having periods to …

A: As my mom used to say, let’s not and say we did!

Q: Why do old bachelors make bad grammarians?
When invited to conjugate, they invariably decline.

A: … as will this guy.

Q: Among my fingers
A more accurate description would be “between each pair of fingers.”

A: More accurate, but you still might want to make sure your Jhoon Rhee lessons are current.

Q: Acronyms
We were going to name the company Technology Insertion Techniques & Services, but the acronym didn’t work out.

A: Thanks for keeping us abreast.

Q: Ledespeak
An AP style adherent was arrested after police say he lapsed into an Oxford comma. What do you think about the tense-shifting type of construction in the police blotter? Shouldn’t “police say” at least be set apart by commas?

A: I see your point, and Mary Norris at the New Yorker would probably use those commas, but lede-speak it is. Daily journalism (we used to call it “newspapers”) has its share of such devices.

Q: Commas
Yes, you have just irritated me by saying commas are an art form. They certainly are not science, but there are rules for commas. So, never mind. I’ve lost all respect for you.

A: On occasion I omit commas. On occasion, I use them.

(The more you know about English, the less you’re likely to think there are unbreakable “rules” for a lot of these things.)

Q: Second-person headlines
Pet peeve, and I’d like your perspective on this. I’ve noticed a preponderance of second-person headlines- not just at the Post, but in general. (Example from right now: “Could early fatherhood really kill you?”- my ovaries would suggest it’s unlikely.) I particularly dislike the second-person imperatives or the “you’re doing X all wrong” ones. I realize this is particularly a click-bait-y Slate-Pitch-y sort of thing, and it tends to stay contained in PostEverything, but it’s been slipping across the borders more and more. Any thoughts on the trend? Any guidelines as to when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the second-person?

A: The assumptions behind that kind of writing, both in headlines and in the little text, bother me. I don’t want to hear about how I’m feeling “pain at the pump” and hating the Beltway traffic and what my kids are doing at church blah blah blah when I don’t have kids and I don’t go to church and I ride my bike to work.

Imagine being a vegan trans nudist and having to put up with all this.

Q: WaPo headlines
Hello Mr. Walsh, Was there an official meeting a few years back where former news titan the Washington Post decided to switch all headlines to clickbait style, or did it happen organically?

A: No meeting that I know of. But you’ll never believe what happened next.

Q: re: tactful office guidance
For ten years I’ve been listening to my boss use “akin” as a verb, as a synonym of “compare.” One day I’m just gonna lose it.

A: Wow.

Do you work at Akin Gump?

Q: speaking of incoherent sentences
whence arises the journalistic principle that the first paragraph of every news story has to be a single long sentence? Is it a fear of making some facts seem less important than others by demoting them to a second sentence? Or is it just a matter of not wanting to look like USA Today?

A: Or just that every single fact has to be crammed into the lede. Yeah, that phenomenon bugs me.

Also the idea that the time element had to be right there. If I had more power, I’d make it a policy to move that detail to the second graf unless there’s a good reason not to. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re writing about something that happened the day before.

Q: Soil
Can you please try to cut down on use of the word “soil” when referring to a country, as in “a terrorist attack on U.S. soil”? Saying “in the U.S.” seems just as clear, and avoids images of agriculture or soiled laundry.

A: How do you feel about “boots on the ground”?

Q: Family matters
I’ve noticed a creeping usage of family status (“Mother”, “Grandma”) in news reports, mostly broadcast, where the reproductive history seems irrelevant. Examples like “Grandma Robbed at Gunpoint” or “Local Mom Wins Lottery” seem to have TMI….shouldn’t the headline use “woman”, and later in the story the family is mentioned, if relevant? This usage seems to involve mostly women….I rarely see/hear “Dad Involved in Motorcycle Wreck” of “Grandpa Announces Leveraged Buyout”, but it seems like all women have become Moms or Grandmas for news purposes. Can’t remember seeing or hearing “Single Woman Charged with Assault”, but one would wonder why not, given the trend. Do you see this too?

A: Every journalism student is warned against this, but it still happens. You could argue that “grandma” adds color to a story about a would-be victim beating the crap out of the would-be robber, but often it’s gratuitous. And grandmas can be 35 years old, of course.

Q. Mixed-metaphor headline on WaPo online homepage
“How the improbable Cruz candidacy soared — and then unraveled”

A: Well, you know, threads become unstable at high altitudes, right?

Q: every/day
why, oh why, do people insist on making a single word of “every day”? They’re right about half the time.

A: People in general aren’t very good at the one-word-vs.-two thing. It’s the kind of error that separates well-edited writing from the other kind. What was my line from “Lapsing Into a Comma”? Something about “bare foot people in the buffetline.”

That’s why I get cynical about being too quick to accept widely used one-word coinages as correct for publication style. The onewordization often happens eventually, of course, and some of those coinages make intuitive good sense (“crowdsource” is an ironic example), but the same people who get agitated when old farts like me won’t write “livestream” and “newsfeed” as solid will then turn around and refer to WordPress as “Word Press.”

Feel free to transfer that argument to capitalization issues such as “Internet” vs. “internet,” by the way. I’m not sure we should take our capitalization cues from people who never capitalize anything, or people who major in History and love Sushi.

Q: Mistress??
Thoughts on the use of this term? Seems offensive on so many levels. It’s coy and archaic, and labels the woman but not the man. If we’re going to be subjected to news coverage of these relationships, surely there’s a better way to convey necessary information. What do you advise at the Post?

A: You say “coy and archaic” as though that’s a bad thing!

But, yes, that’s a good question. I stumbled on a recent reference to Monica Lewinsky as Bill Clinton’s mistress, but I couldn’t think of an alternative and I found plenty of examples of people using the term, so I left it.

Ideally you’d have room to elaborate on exactly what the situation was, but this was a passing reference just because “Monica Lewinsky” alone would have seemed, uh, naked.

I’m also stumbling at references to Donald Sterling’s “girlfriend,” which seemed fine until we learned he was married.

Anyone have a good idea?

OMG, Miss Manners just walked by my desk.

Anyway, thank you for that lively hour! Let’s do it again April 6.

And if you’re inclined to visit the Pacific Northwest later this month (I can’t believe it’s already this month), I’ll be speaking in Portland at the American Copy Editors Association conference.
Linda Holmes wrote a nice piece about Bill Walsh for NPR; here are three grafs:

The best copy editors are empaths in a very specific way, I think, because writers and even other editors are so close to a piece that they grow to see it from the inside out. It’s the copy editor who has to be able to see it from the outside in. He has to put himself in the position of the reader at the last minute and make sure that what has been so carefully conceived won’t arrive imperfectly finished, like a delicious bowl of soup slopped over the edge of the bowl. Copy editors must see your story as the reader will see it; they must pretend to know only what a reader can know, even if they know more.

Copy editors are quality junkies; there is nothing else to drive them. Their names will not appear on the writing they make better, they are increasingly overburdened almost everywhere, and if they are imagined by the average reader at all, it’s often as nitpicky technicality cops.

What a great copy editor is instead, and what Bill Walsh was to me, is both that exacting crafter of print at the atomic level and a final eye for good sense.
John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun on his friend Bill Walsh:

He was an ornament to The Washington Post as a copy editor, and at ACES he showed us what the best of us could hope to achieve. We wanted to hear from him for at least another decade, but now one of the most sensible, best-informed, most entertaining voices among us has been silenced.

The signal quality I associate with him, his learning and humor aside, is his generosity. Everything he learned, everything he knew about language and editing, he willingly shared, and shared abundantly with his colleagues, and all of us are in his debt.

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