Today, one of the most prolific entrants to our Show Me the Errors contest, Stephens College professor Jim Terry, was on a roll. Over the course of an about an hour, Terry submitted 21 separate errors, almost all of them simple and unarguably valid. The majority of them I would put in the category of “Careless.” If our editors had been paying a little more attention, none of these errors would have seen the light of day. I compiled the errors in this Word document for our editing staff, if you care to take a look.
This problem of failing to edit for detail reminded me of something I learned from a longtime colleague of mine at The Wichita Eagle, Roy Wenzl. Those of you here at Mizzou might have met Roy a few weeks ago when he was on campus working with some of Jacqui Banaszynski’s students. Roy’s expertise is in narrative reporting, and many of his pieces win a lot of attention. Nieman Storyboard recently did a great interview with Roy about his latest work.
Back in about 1997, we were having some editing problems at The Eagle, which once upon a time was infamous for having eliminated its central copy desk*. A lot of little errors were making it into print. Roy — the leader of the crime and safety team at the time — circulated a memo describing something he called “The Dink-Dink Solution.” I was a pretty fresh copy editor then and found this technique immediately improved the consistency of my editing. I adapted the technique, but it owes a lot to Roy’s memo. Here it is:
- When you’re copy-editing a story, the first time you read through it, you try not to touch it. You can fix very obvious, simple errors, but your goal is to read the thing from top to bottom and to try to understand it. You’re asking yourself: What is this story about? Do I understand it? Will the reader understand it? Is it fair and accurate? Any fiddly editing you do at this point is only going to distract you from answering those fundamental questions.
- You’re now going to pass judgment on the story. Does it accomplish its purpose? Did I understand it? Will the reader? Is it journalistically sound? If it’s flawed, can I fix it? If the story is misconceived, this is the point at which you have a conversation with the assigning editor or the night editor about it. There are some fundamental problems that a copy editor can’t, or at least shouldn’t, fix.
- If you still have the story, it’s time to really go to work. From top to bottom, fix the problems you find, whatever they are. Do the copy editing. And when you’re done with this pass of nuts-and-bolts editing. …
- It’s time to go “dink-dink.” If you have a way to hide your editing notes, do it. Now, start at the bottom of the story, with the last paragraph. Read it slowly and closely. Ask yourself: Does each word and each phrase mean what it says? Are there details here that I missed in my first pass? And when you’re done with the last paragraph, move up to the next-to-last paragraph and do the same thing. And then up to paragraph before that, and then the paragraph before that, etc. The idea here is that you’re divorcing yourself from the narrative of the story. You’re no longer going to get lost in what the writer is trying to say, you’re reading what the author actually wrote, in the way you edited it. This is what Roy meant by “dink-dink.” Imagine the staccato sound you make as you tap each paragraph individually, instead of the more continuous sound you make as you barrel through the story head-first. “Dink, dink, dink.”
- At this point, you’ve made three passes through the story. You might be done. Depending on how complex the story was, how much time you’ve got, how extensive your editing was, you might add a fourth pass, forward this time, just to read and understand the end result of your editing. And then, you move the story along to the news editor or slot.
When I’ve taught this to students, I’ve done so with this caveat: This is a technique — my technique. Try it. It might work for you. Or in trying it, you might figure out your own technique, just as I adapted this technique from Roy. The lesson here is that you’ve got to do something that forces you to read for detail. It doesn’t usually come naturally. Most copy editors are voracious consumers of information and tend to devour their recreational reading; part of our craft is cultivating the discipline to slow down.
* The Eagle’s copy editors were parceled out to topic-based content teams in 1995, and many took the opportunities offered to transform themselves into excellent reporters and assigning editors. The content teams worked out well, but the dearth of copy editing did not. By about 1999, a frustrated newsroom voted to make reconstituting the copy desk one of its top priorities for the year, and Executive Editor Rick Thames and Copy Chief Jann Nyffeler made it happen. I succeeded Jann as the leader of the reconstituted desk, a post I held for five years. Today, some of the desk’s denizens and alumni are among the most prominent members of the American Copy Editors Society.