Copy Editing Pro Merrill Perlman Spots Story Problems

Merrill Perlman has doubts. So, she looks things up, does the math, figures things out, finds the focus.

After spending 25 years at The New York Times, working on and directing the copy desks, she has developed more than a few good editing tricks. She’s also developed the careers of some of the world’s finest copy editors.

If you’re lucky, you’ll hear her speak at the American Copy Editors Society’s conference in Minneapolis at the end of April or at one of her other training engagements around the U.S. For now, here are a few of her thoughts about editing.

“You want to try to get people to stop reading and start seeing,” Perlman said. “If you’re reading, you might be looking at the words and not getting a picture. You really want the images to form in your head and you want to watch the movie that’s unfolding.”

Sara Dickenson Quinn: You’ve chosen a rather chaotic film clip here as a lesson about editing. What can you tell me about it?

Merrill Perlman: It’s an over-pixelated clip from the movie “Braveheart” (not “Braveheart 2” as the clip’s title indicates). You really can’t tell what’s going on, except that you know there’s an awful lot of stuff. People are falling all over. You can sort of tell it’s a battle scene. But you can’t tell who’s on whose side, who’s getting hurt. There’s too much going on.

How can this relate to editing a written story?

Perlman: The story equivalent of that would be: too many verbs in a sentence. Too many verbs in a lede, too many verbs in an image.

Stories that particularly suffer from this are court stories, where each verb is an action. It might say:

“The court voted to overturn a lower court decision.”

So, we have a vote, overturning a decision. Now, your head can jerk back and forth and you get whiplash trying to figure out which way they voted. What gets more complicated is if they voted to overturn a ban on something. So, what does that mean?

There’s too much action going on in that sentence. And the reader is just going to get lost. You want to slow the action down. You want people to understand what’s going on. And if it means over-simplifying, that’s fine:

“A court ruled yesterday that a petition can go ahead.” Rather than:
“A court overturned a lower court’s ruling that banned a petition.”

Let’s talk about numbers.

Perlman: The movie “A Beautiful Mind,” based on the book written by Sylvia Nasar, is about this brilliant man who is a savant with numbers. He could process thousands of numbers of formulas and new ways of looking at them. He’s a true, mathematical genius.

There’s a scene in the movie where he is standing in a room and there are all of these numbers around him and they’re lighting up, and they’re flashing, and there are formulas. It’s one of those 360-degree shots, where the camera is moving around him. He’s absolutely surrounded by numbers.

The audience has no idea what’s going on in his head, because there are just too many numbers.

That’s exactly what happens in a news story sometimes, when someone says, “I’ve got all of these great statistics … and there’s no time to put together a graphic.” Or, “I didn’t think about putting together a graphic … So, I’m just going to tell you that:

‘Last year 1.4 million cars, each one carrying an average of 3.2 people, paid the $8 toll for the George Washington bridge, which yielded a revenue of $11.2 million, of which $355,000 went for painting.'”

It would take a John Nash to follow that.

Perlman: The rule of thumb is, no more than two or three numbers per paragraph. And then, let the reader rest a little, before you throw more numbers at them.

Numbers confuse people.

Perlman: Yes. And, from an editor’s point of view, if you have too many numbers, even your eyes start to glaze over. And … you’re going to make the million/billion error.

What is the million/billion error?

Perlman: The million/billion error is probably one of the most common errors. At many papers, it happens about once a month. People focus on the number. OK, does the math work? OK, the revenues were 1.4 million and now they’re 1.6 million … OK, the numbers match.

But, what I didn’t notice is that it’s not 1.4 million, it was 1.4 billion! Because I’m looking at the 1.4 and not looking after it. It’s an error of focus.

It’s like perspective; you need to step back and say, here’s the number, what’s the modifier? That’s true of a lot in editing. You focus on one thing, but you need to step back and see what’s surrounding it. Frequently, the modifier is not the right one.

* * *

Late last year, before this interview was conducted, I rode with Merrill on a sightseeing trolley here in St. Petersburg. We were tired. We’d taught a long day at Poynter. The trolley driver blah-de-blahed about some movie that had been filmed in St. Petersburg, how many palm trees there were in the city. I dunno.

Then, he mentioned that there were more than 135,000 flights that went in and out of our little downtown airport each year.

I nodded as I stared out the window of the trolley. Um-hmm. Then, I noticed that Merrill had pulled out her calculator and was busy punching in numbers. She showed me her tally and shook her head, seeming to say “that would mean that there were 370 flights through that little airport each day. Couldn’t be.”

We finished the tour, gave the driver a tiny tip for his whopper of a tale and went on our way.

A good editor questions the veracity of things for those of us who just sort of believe everything we read and hear.

CLARIFICATION: Allow me to prove one of Perlman’s points: Wednesday, I posted this column after making the assumption that 135,000 flights in and out of our little Albert Whitted Municipal Airport in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., would be much too large a number for such a small operation.

(Yes, I know what happens when I assume.)

The much bigger Tampa International Airport, after all, had only about 249,000 flight operations last year, according to its 2008 annual report. It dwarfs little Albert Whitted, where the light planes fly so low over the roof of The Poynter Institute that my office goes deeply into shadow almost every time.

Had I only followed Merrill’s sage advice, stepped back and done the work, I would have been able to correctly report that little Albert Whitted indeed had 84,000 flight operations in 2008, according to Albert Whitted Manager Rich Lesniak. The airport has recorded an average of 100,000 in other years.

Calculate this out at 100,000, and it’s roughly a takeoff or landing every five minutes, 24 hours a day. Impressive.

A flight operation includes both takeoffs and landings. The airport does a lot of training for small planes and helicopters. Many instances are termed “touch and goes,” in which the craft lands briefly, then takes off again. They add up.

Here’s one lesson I think I now get. Do the math, Sara. Check it out before you publicly cast aspersions. I guess I owe the trolley driver a bigger tip.

Here’s a good News University resource: Math for Journalists

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly described the biography “A Beautiful Mind” and incorrectly referred to the movie “Braveheart.”

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