The Seven Deadly Copy Editing Sins

By Anne Glover
Assistant Managing Editor/Copy Desk, St. Petersburg Times


All copy editors strive to be perfect. Right? Well, everyone’s human. To be the perfect copy editor, take note of the following deadly sins as enumerated by veteran copy editor, desk supervisor and newsroom manager Anne Glover. Avoid them and you’ll be a shining star on the desk.

1. Arrogance.
This could also be described as selfishness: Your layout, your efforts to be clever in your headline at the expense of clarity, the choices you make about using space in your section say to the reader, “I don’t care about you. This was more convenient for me to do.”

I see many variations on this: grouped cutlines that make it unclear which photos they accompany, type that the reader can’t read, photos played too small, a story that’s hard to follow because of the layout, art heads that don’t say anything.

2. Assumptions.
You assume that the reporter did the math, or that the photographer got the name wrong, not the reporter. Or you assume that the reporter meant something that he or she did not. Or you assumed that someone else would take care of the weekend planning because you were about to go on vacation. Or you assumed that you could use a certain typographic style on your front because that’s what you saw the 1A designer do.

3. Sloppiness.
There are so many ways this manifests itself, but here are a few: widows left scattered throughout the page; no page number in a tease; a jumpline that refers readers to the wrong page; a cutline that says someone is in the photo when they clearly are not; a cutline name that is different from the name in the story; a bad break in a headline that makes it difficult to understand.

4. Indifference.
You treat a great story as if it is just another daily feature by giving it a small headline or playing it in a 15-pica wide hole down the side of the page. Or you play a piece of great art in a mediocre way because you can’t see its need to run large or with a great crop.

Its cousin is sameness: Every page is predictable, from the headlines to the size of the art to the basic layout of the page. Give your readers something to take away with that day’s page: an interesting headline, a tease, a great crop on a photo, a helpful info box.

5. Ignorance.
You run a photo of the wrong congressman from your district because you haven’t been paying attention. Or you decide that World War II ended on June 6 because you didn’t bother reading the package we had on 1A about VE Day. Or you thought you would be clever by using another language in a headline, but you used the wrong tense in the verb. Or you thought a television show was coming on that night when it had changed nights a month ago.

Readers always know these things, and you damage the newspaper’s credibility when you show that you don’t.

6. Laziness.
You didn’t bother to check to see if we had file art to go with a profile because it wasn’t your job and someone should have put it on the budget. Or you didn’t bother teasing something because you couldn’t find out what page it was on. Or you didn’t finish up that advance page because your shift was up and you thought someone else could finish it for you the next day. Or you didn’t bother looking up something in the stylebook because you’re pretty sure it was right. Or you didn’t want to check out the background of a story in the electronic library because you thought the copy chief would catch it.

7. Inflexibility.
You can’t possibly change that front page because it’s late in the night and just how important could a downed helicopter in the bay be? Or, you have that page all done, why are they asking for another information graphic on it now? Or you resent having to work a later shift when someone is out. Or you don’t feel comfortable working in Sports.

This information originated as a handout for a Poynter Institute seminar for journalism educators in June, 1995. It may be used with attribution of the author and the Poynter Institute.

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