6 ways journalists can clean their copy, commit fewer errors

Recently, I became so upset by the number of easily avoidable mistakes I was encountering in respected online and print outlets that I got in touch with Poynter, eager to write something making clear the risk these organizations were taking by skimping on editing.

I know from experience, particularly as public editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution more than a decade ago, how disturbing such errors are to readers, leading them to believe no one’s paying attention or cares.

On the other hand, does Poynter’s audience want to read another jeremiad from a cranky old retired guy? Nope, Poynter’s Julie Moos told me. The institute’s readers are interested in solutions, not complaints. (Those are all my words. Julie was, of course, far more polite.)

Initially, I didn’t think I had any solutions. But the more I chewed on the issue, the more I thought I might have something to offer. Perhaps reporters could use a checklist, even as a refresher.

So, here are six tips to help you take control of your copy. None is original. You’ve likely encountered them all at one time or another. But I guarantee that if you diligently follow them, you’ll commit fewer errors.

1. Assume your copy will be published exactly as you wrote it. Don’t leave questions about facts, style, grammar or spelling for “the desk”; don’t hit spell-check and assume that’s taken care of; don’t fail to double check.

2. Read your copy aloud slowly -- and listen carefully -- before sending it. Virtually nothing will help you catch mistakes such as typos, transpositions, dropped words or misplaced phrases quicker than hearing each word and sentence.

3. Be fair. If there are accusations or negative comments in what you’ve written, did you give the subject a chance to respond? Everyone deserves that.

4. Stop at every number. First, be sure you’ve provided any necessary context. A company closing five stores means one thing if it operates 500 and quite another if it has only 10. It’s impossible to evaluate a 7 percent pay raise without knowing the amount of either the old or new wage. Second, if figures are supposed to add up to a specific number, do the arithmetic. Third, don’t confuse percent with percentage point, median with average or make similar elementary mathematical mistakes. Finally, double check every date, phone number and URL.

5. Read your email & respond to it. I have alerted reporters to errors ranging from mangled quotes and incorrect dates to major factual errors. I’m sure others do the same. Many times I receive no reply but, much worse, the errors aren’t corrected.

6. Keep a list and check it twice. This is particularly important if your job involves using other sources. Take note of which outlets -- and bylines -- get it right and which ones don’t. Attributing errors doesn’t let you off the hook. That’s deniability, not accuracy.

For more helpful advice, check out this News University course -- Cleaning your copy: grammar, style & more


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