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Taking away editing lessons from research

March 25, 2015 By Gerri Berendzen Resources

How do you quantify the value of the work that copy editors do?

ACES-sponsored research by Fred Vultee conducted in 2011 showed that readers notice errors in news stories and find them distracting. That study showed the value of copy editing, and Vultee urged a gathering of editors at ACES’ 2015 conference Thursday to continue that research and support studies that build on his work.

Research also can help copy editors know which of the detail tasks they do are most valuable to readers. Alyssa Appelman, a recent doctoral graduate from Pennsylvania State University, recently did research on whether journalistic conventions matter to readers.

Appelman talked about her research Thursday. She noted, for instance, that on the list of errors that readers see most, misspelled proper names was No. 1. Misspelled common nouns and incorrect verb agreement were Nos. 2 and 3. Yet some things that most often stress copy editors, like nonparallel construction and the proper list of a and an, ranked low on the list.

Her research suggests that readers don’t notice mistakes involving a lot of journalistic conventions that copy editors agonize over. She also wondered if online readers are getting desensitized to errors.

But Appelman noted that switching up the variables on the study subjects could lead to different result.

Still, the research can help shape the work of copy editors, especially in a quick turn-around environment. For instance, copy editors might think about where fixing typos should fall on the importance list in a triage editing situation. ACES member Nick Jungman tweeted about that.

Potential takeaway from @AAppelman study: People can forgive typo-type mistakes. Editors don’t add value just by fixing typos. #ACES2015
— Nick Jungman (@nickjungman) March 26, 2015

And research can help copy editors in other ways by giving them ideas on areas where more work is needed and where they can make a difference. Steve Bien-Aime, a doctoral student and instructor at Penn State, talked about his research on the portrayal of women in the sports media.

Too often, he said, female athletes are described by their looks or clothes — marginalizing them in the sports world even when their accomplishments are superior to the men in the same field.

Copy editors can play a role in battling sexism in the sports media by questioning that kind of writing and editing out sexist passages.

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