Monday, 6 December 2010

Paying Attention

The main duty of a copy editor is to ensure that the text he or she works on does not contain distractions that will divert a reader's attention from its meaning. When dealing with creative writing, it is important that the editor also be conscious of the writer's 'voice', as this can sometimes be stifled in the process of making things clearer. With newspaper reporting, this consideration is less important, as the essential aim of a journalist should always be to convey facts and argument. Journalists do not usually have to worry a great deal about creating other effects.

Clearly, the most obvious way to distract a reader is to leave a word out or make a spelling mistake. However, badly placed punctuation can also make it hard to follow an argument. Other factors, such as repetitive language, create barriers to understanding as well.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as I made my way through the Sydney Morning Herald's latest News Review. There were, as usual, the glaring failures, like this one from Tim Dick's column:

 I know it's only a small word that's missing - "according" has been printed, instead of "according to" - but it seems a pity to spoil a good article with such a silly mistake.

As well as these kinds of stupidities, there were other things in the paper that bothered me. I'm sure it would be easy to demonstrate that they didn't really matter. Many of them could be described as purely a matter of taste. All the same, I think my suggested changes could have made a difference to how quickly readers grasped what the SMH's writers were trying to say.

For example, in an interesting article about how doctors should treat people who are clearly dying, I thought there was a case to be made for a different use of commas. In this excerpt, for instance, I would have liked to place a comma after "routine":

I might also have added in a "that" between "demand" and "sick".

Later, in the boxed part of the article that is headed "Demographics", I would have added "that" plus a comma between "says" and "when" in the sentence beginning "Bishop" - or else I would have removed the comma after "ill":

I would have removed the comma after "surroundings" in the second sentence in the second paragraph in this next excerpt. That comma there is useless - all it does is separate the verb from its subject:

Further on in the News Review section, in Michael Wesley's essay about Wikileaks, in the sentence beginning "Anything" and ending "classification", I think "that" should replace "which" and, to my eyes, the pair of commas around "complicate things if it got out" only add a hurdle to the communication of meaning:

Later in that article, this passage occurs:

To start with, it seems to me that the commas around "a casual randomness" suggest that it is a phrase that duplicates the meaning of "massive scale". It is not. As a result, when I read that sentence I become confused. To resolve this, either the editor should remove the comma after "randomness" or insert "and" before "a casual randomness". Further on in the same paragraph, a comma should be added after "diplomats" and the comma after "correspondence" should be replaced by "and" - that comma could be redeployed successfully in that sentence by being placed after "government" and before "at a time".

Still in the same article, we have this passage:

Those sentences that begin "At a time" should not have been separated from the sentence that begins "This will happen at a time when our society ..." - the verb they depend on is stranded up there in that sentence, while they float about like little tatters torn off something else. In rejoining them to the mother ship, an "and" should be inserted before the second one.

Further on in the article, "anew" is misused - the diplomats are not usually returning to posts they've been in before; the norm of diplomatic life is that you do not go back - and there either needs to be a "with which" after "correspondence" or, at the very least, a "with" after "job":

In this next excerpt from the same piece, "churches and the media" might appear to the reader to be in some kind of new alliance:

Unless the writer intended to convey that impression, it would be better to write "from business to NGOs, from churches to the media".

Once again, I think the addition of a solitary comma would help in this paragraph:

I would place the comma in the sentence beginning "The stability and order" - I think it should go between "certain" and "as", in order to give the reader a place to get their bearings in what is quite a long sentence.

If we look at the passage that follows directly on from that last excerpt, I think I can see where we might take our comma from:

I would take it from between "seriously" and "and". In that position, it is doing nothing, except separating the verb from its subject.

Moving on from Michael Wesley to an article about the Victorian election, the new Premier of Victoria is quoted as follows:

If I had transcribed that, I would have put a comma before "rather than".

I also would have put a comma before "and hopefully" when transcribing Malcolm Fraser's comments on the win:

The sentence beginning "Although" in this next passage from the same article could, I think, be recast, in order to help readers grasp its meaning more easily:

I would have changed it to: "Although there were a range of factors at play - not least the distinction between federal and state issues - in the south-east the difference between the Liberal vote in the federal election and that in the state election invites investigation." It's still not a beautiful sentence, but the slight confusion created by the repetition of "in the", referring to two different things but very close together, is diffused a bit, I believe.

A bit of recasting might not have gone astray once or twice in John Garnaut's article about China either. In the first instance, the problem that arises is ambiguity:

To avoid any possibility that the reader might think that it was the X-ray that had a bullet in it, I would have written: "I saw an X-ray which showed a dispossessed peasant's skull with a bullet in it."

In the second instance, it's simply a case of something being extremely hard to follow:
I would rewrite the sentence beginning "One" so that it ran like this: "Until it was shut down two months ago, Andingyuan, a private security company, acting on behalf of local governments, employed 3000 people to kidnap petitioners in broad daylight in Beijing."

Gosh. I haven't even started the rest of the paper - and there's still the Weekend Australian to get through after that. But don't worry - I shall keep further observations to myself


  1. A woman after my mother's heart - and, I think, my daughter's. In fact, I might even be tarred with the same brush a little. Trouble is that it is often easier to find mistakes in other people's work than in one's own. I pore over my blog posts and then publish. Next minute I see all the things I could have said more clearly, not to mention the odd typo. Why is it so?

  2. Because the second golden rule, after "If you can be misread, you will be", is "Always find a second pair of eyes." No text should ever be passed for publishing until a second person has read it, ideally. Difficult to manage as a solitary blogger. Perhaps I could set up a business, do you think?

  3. Fantastic news that your daughter cares about such things. Very unusual in the young these days.