Mistakes editors make and how to fix them

March 31, 2016 By Tracy Cook Conferences

PORTLAND, Oregon — Correcting mistakes is part of any copy editor’s job description. But history proves even the most experienced, seasoned editors make mistakes. Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained examples of such mistakes in his presentation “Rookie Mistakes That Even Veterans Make” during the opening breakout session of ACES’ 2016 conference Thursday morning. About 200 people filled the standing-room-only audience.

Walsh grouped common mistakes into several categories, some of which included:

One tip: Know when to break the rules. In elementary school grammar classes, teachers harped on subject-verb agreement. Walsh presented the idea of notional agreement, conjugating verbs as they would make sense to the ear, or how most people talk. While it would be technically correct to say “A group of editors is meeting for lunch,” saying “A group of editors are meeting for lunch,” works just as well.

Walsh also provided several examples of hyphenated phrases: “pro-gun control senators,” “anti-child abuse programs,” and “high school-age boys.” The first example misleads the reader to think the senators are pro-gun. The second is even worse.

When talking about suspects, Walsh said it’s important not to libel someone by using the word suspect in placement of their name. Writers will sometimes do this and follow “suspect” with the person’s name in the next line, directly connecting the two statements. Also, a “suspect” cannot be described if police have no suspects. A more accurate word might be “robber,” “burglar,” etc., depending on the scenario.

Other mistakes were more obvious. In one newspaper clip, a caption designated placement of a woman as being on the right, even though the photo showed only her and a dog. Another clip inserted “Oregon” five times in one spread, dispersed among the headline, dateline, text and caption.

In Part 2 of his presentation, “Rookie Mistakes That Even Veterans Mostly Rookies Make,” Walsh spoke about generational differences and how they appear in copy. “Logo replication fetish” has taken over arts and culture reviews (among others), and it’s unnecessary. Logos need not be printed in all caps with spaces inserted in between. And whereas young people might say something like “It looks like we’re in for some rain,” the correct and preferred version (at least, for now) is “It looks as though we’re in for some rain.”

For the rest of this conference, though, it looks as though we’re in for good weather.

ACES newsroom member Tracy Cook is a student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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