ACES 2012 | New Orleans

Triage for the copy desk

Copy editors should take a cue from the emergency room and battlefields and learn to practice copy triage. Recognize what’s critical, what’s urgent and what’s merely important when editing copy.

By Eric Cummings
Grambling State University

Working copy editors know that it’s not always possible to make every beneficial edit in every story.

Sometimes the deadline is too near. Sometimes the staffing level is too low. Sometimes you’re just swamped.

How do you prioritize what should be taken care of first and what is most important?

Nick Jungman, managing editor of the Wichita Business Journal, offered practical advice for knowing what’s critical and what’s not in his Friday morning ACES session, “Triage on the Battlefield … I Mean Copy Desk.”

Jungman likened the copy desk to doing triage in the emergency room. It’s a matter of assessing what’s most important. He offered tips on how to help with those “headACHES” you will encounter. For Jungman, ACHES stands for Accuracy, Clarity, Headlines, Efficiency and Style, an acronym that ranks things to work on in order of most important to least important.

1. Accuracy. Focus on if the information given is correct. Question the tone and the bias of the story. Jungman suggests copy editors read the entire story through once before making any changes, even minor ones. Then read again and start working on the story.

2. Clarity. A story can be accurate but not clear. Be the reader of the story. Answer questions you believe the reader would have, bridge gaps that might have readers uncertain about the story, and tackle the grammar that also affects clarity.

3. Headlines. Or, really, all display type. Make sure the headlines sells. The most important entry points for readers are the headlines and other display type, so make sure these are interesting.

4. Efficiency. Cut down on redundancy of the story, but don’t waste time refitting pieces of the story if it is clear but has a fractured flow.

5. Style. Finally, it is time to polish the story. Here you pay attention to the smaller details. A good editor will usually find time to do this, but it’s the most expendable when time is tight. Readers don’t necessarily mind if you writer advisor with an “o” one time and “adviser” with an “e” the next. But clarity and accuracy is important to the reader.

But Jungman cautions that spelling and style are different, and ranks correct spelling as part of the accuracy check.

Jungman says some copy editors obsess about style, and in many ways that diminishes their work. Copy editors are more important to their publications and audience as guardians of accuracy and clarity, he says.

He says that setting priorities when editing helps out greatly but what to prioritize is the problem.

“When everything is a priority, nothing is,” Jungman said.

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