Copyediting for reporters
In their working lives, reporters naturally concentrate on reporting — making calls, developing sources, conducting interviews and research, and finally writing. All this effort centers on getting stories and making sure they’re timely, accurate and compelling.
In large news operations, be they print, online or broadcast, journalists know that after they submit their stories, their copy will normally go through an editor and copyeditor before publication. The goal of these additional layers of attention is to ensure that stories are comprehensible, consistent and correct.
Today, however, many journalists work on their own or in smaller organizations without a layer of dedicated editors. Is it enough for them to simply submit or post a story and cross their fingers? No.
Whatever the size of your news organization, dedicating time to examine the grammar, spelling, formatting and accuracy of your stories is essential. Copyediting is a very different activity from writing, and putting on an editor’s hat helps you see your own copy in a different way, and thus will help you improve it. Copyediting can even reveal deeper errors within a story that can send you back into your reporter’s role.
Every copyeditor’s approach is different, but it helps to work from the top down:
- Verify all the facts in your article. Double-check all names, even if you think they’re right. If you use a number or a date, no matter how seemingly insignificant, check it. Verify all math, especially averages and percentages. If you make assertions about an individual or organization, did you contact them to verify the information and get comment? If not, do so.
- Do a complete read of the story from beginning to end. Does it read easily and flow logically? Are the conclusions supported by the facts presented? As a reader, does the story leave you asking questions that could have been answered? Do you use technical terms that aren’t explained or jargon that’s unclear? Are there any run-on sentences or words you use too frequently? Address all these issues.
- Go through the story again, this time looking at each sentence individually and the words within each sentence. One helpful trick is to print out the story and read it with an index card blocking all lines below the one you’re reading; that way your eyes can’t skip forward until you’ve verified everything. As you go, check spelling with your preferred dictionary, and remember that while useful, spell-check isn’t always your best friend — for example, the words their, there, and they’re can be properly spelled in a sentence, and yet be completely wrong in context. The same goes for your and you’re.
- Look at punctuation for correctness and consistency: parentheses, dashes, commas, semicolons and colons, ellipses, percentage signs, ampersands and quotes.
- Finally, if you work with a colleague, have them read a printed copy of your story, using the same index-card method. As careful as one person can be, it’s always good to have a second reader. Have that person mark up your copy, then verify and enter the changes yourself — it’s the best way to be forced to see things you missed, literally.
This is an involved process, but every step has a purpose. Separating the copyediting process from reporting and writing ensures that time is dedicated to each one. As you get used to copyediting your own work, you’ll become faster and your stories will get better. One helpful strategy is to keep track of the corrections you make and compile them in a “cheat sheet” — for example, it could remind you to check its versus it’s if that’s an error you tend to make. If you’re not feeling secure in your choices, take Poynter‘s free online course “Cleaning Your Copy.”
A good resource for copyediting is The Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook doesn’t attempt to address grammatical questions, so it is less helpful, but if it’s all you’ve got, use it. Note that whatever style you use, the key is to be not just correct, but also consistent. For example, there’s only one correct way to spell the word journalist in English, but catalog can also be spelled catalogue. (AP prefers the former.) Whatever the choice you make, stick with it, be it a matter of spelling, grammar, capitalization, case or style.
Even if you’re on deadline, it’s essential to dedicate time for copyediting. As the introduction to the “Cleaning Your Copy” course says: “Mistakes in grammar, spelling and style are like coffee stains on a shirt. Readers notice. And, eventually, those mistakes eat away at your credibility as a journalist.”