Abraham Hyatt, part of the problem:
I spent three years as an editor at the tech news site ReadWrite.com. Before that I was an editor at a print news magazine. The transition from print to digital was jarring and ultimately a lot of fun. But after my first six months, I still had one little vestigial wish from my print days: I wanted to hire a copyeditor. Just like Vice wants to.
It would be groundbreaking, I thought, to bring that kind of quality to tech blogging. And a few years later, I had the chance to do it. I found two very talented editors who worked from morning Eastern time to late afternoon Pacific time. Every story went through them before being published. They were fantastic.
They also slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt. And, even more importantly: No. One. Cared.
Hyatt’s blog post is intended as advice to Vice Media, which ran an ad seeking a copy editor for its online operation.
Is Hyatt correct that copy editors only slow things down, and readers don’t care about clean copy free of typographical errors, grammatical gaffes and misspelled names?
Maybe … but if he is, it’s because blogs and low-rent online news sites have conditioned readers to have low expectations about such things. They don’t care only because they no longer expect such attention to detail, which means providers have an incentive to bypass the copy editing step, which means readers come to accept its lack.
It’s not really that readers don’t care, it’s that they come to a blog or news site already expecting to have to mentally disregard the errors they will inevitably encounter. (Just this morning I read an article on a mainstream website that described someone as a” spaker,” rather than “speaker.”)
This reader does care. I will accept the slipshod quality because it’s inevitable, but I would appreciate any effort to counteract that trend. Quality matters.
Bill Nye is a great popularizer of science, entertaining and witty while teaching people – especially children – about the importance of science. As the host of a children’s show, he does a good job of explaining basic science concepts and facts.
But by training and pre-entertainment profession, he is a mechanical engineer, not a climate scientist.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, has a degree in home economics. Despite her well-known skepticism about climate change and her position as vice-chair of the committee on energy and commerce, she also is not climate scientist.
Yet these are the people Meet the Press has chosen to “debate” global warming today.
Why does MTP not put on real climate scientists to discuss this issue? There is no shortage of them.
My theory, for which I hasten to add I have no direct evidence: They don’t look to scientists to discuss the science of global warming because they prefer to maintain the fiction that there is actually something to “debate.” Among climate scientists, it would be difficult if not impossible to find one who is familiar with the data and concludes that warming is not occurring or that man-made inputs don’t contribute to it.
I’m sure Nye will hold his own against Blackburn, but there are much better ways to approach this topic that MTP is choosing to disregard.
My new job at Gannett Government Media means the Marine Corps Times is part of the family of publications I’m involved with. While I don’t work directly with them, we’re all part of the same group.
Apparently, the MCT doesn’t always go over well with the brass … possibly because of ongoing coverage of a scandal. New orders from the top instruct that it be “removed from its prominent newsstand location at base exchange stores worldwide and placed instead in areas away from checkout lines, where it is harder to find and fewer copies are available.”
Long ago I first heard the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” as a description of what journalism can be. It appears my colleagues are succeeding at that.
This is a bad idea, but it’s an indication of what our profession is rapidly coming to: The St. Augustine Record is inviting the public to help edit the paper.
I don’t mean a focus group or reader advisory panel; they’re actually trying to bring in groups of volunteers to work the night shift, proofreading pages in hopes of winning a dinner for two. This is what publisher Delinda Fogel thinks will actually fix the paper’s apparently rampant typos and grammar errors.
There are at least two things wrong with this idea.
First, copy editing is not just about fixing a misspelled word or correcting a verb for number agreement, although things like that are important. It also has to do with the sense of sentences, adherence to style (how many members of the general public know AP Style?) and other subtleties that require some training and experience to really grasp.
Consider the lead of this story, from the newspaper in question: “The U.S. Secret Service cut a deal with an agent accused of passing confiscated counterfeit money to quit his job, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
As written, this sentence says the purpose of passing the counterfeit money was to quit his job. What the reporter actually intended to say was that the deal was for him to resign in exchange for having no charges filed, as is explained more clearly a few paragraphs later.
A good editor would spot that and rewrite it. That’s more than a simple typo, it’s an aspect of sentence construction that might not be apparent to many people.
The second thing wrong with Fogel’s idea is that it is an insult to people who have actually earned college degrees to prepare them to do this kind of work, and who – quite reasonably – expect to be paid a fair wage for doing it. Fogel’s message to them, intended or not, is that any schmoe off the street can do what you spent a lot of time learning how to do, and will do it for the mere chance of a free dinner.
Continuing to undervalue sound editorial talent is why it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find publications that employ anyone fitting that description.
… or, you know, not:
Just another example of our national fixation on the trivial. Do people actually make voting decisions based on which candidates eat the regional food correctly?
Updated: After my wife read this, she pointed out — correctly — that the real issue here isn’t the food, it’s the awkward effort to make himself look like “one of us” at a photo op and doing it wrong. I can buy that.
Actual ads from a site purporting to connect freelance copywriters with clients:
We are looking for Post-Graduate Editors/Authors/Subject Matter Experts with a flair for writing and Editing Skill. Those selected would be expected to develop content and edit material received from other sources… (Budget: $15-$25 USD) (Note: That is per hour, and they estimate 7 hours a week.)
I need readable copyscape (Www.Copyscape.com) pass article. Not too much high quality article required? I can pay this rate: $6/1000 words, means $3 per 500 words, $1.8 per 300 words. $2.4 per 400 words, $6 per 1000 words
Another, from a company that emphasizes the need for someone with experience writing copy that sells.
Because we are writing 4000 sales letters + 40 books, there will be lots of writing. We will pay $7 per 1000 words.
It goes on and on like that. $7 per 1,000 words? $15 an hour for a project requiring post-graduate writers and subject-matter experts?
This is what freelancers face. While there are certainly plenty of good clients who understand and appreciate the value of a skilled and experienced writer, there are many, many more who think that paying $3 per 500 words for a “not too much high quality article” should be acceptable.
It’s this kind of business model that fills the Internet with poorly-written articles, and devalues the skills required for good copywriting in the process.
In designing pages, whether print or digital, size matters. Everyone thinks about font size, but the length of the lines is also important.
The eyes find about 50 to 75 characters per line to be optimal. (Here is an explanation of the science.) Much wider, and the reader has to use the muscles of the eye or neck to scan the lines, leading to fatigue. Too short, and the eye flits from line to line quickly, breaking the natural reading rhythm and making it more likely the reader will miss words here and there.
This is a basic principle of design, one that is fairly easy to abide by in papers and websites for desktop or laptop computers. But the ever-increasing likelihood that readers are accessing pages on smart phones complicates matters.
The narrow screen forces a choice between a font large enough to read or lines of comfortable length. Pages intended to do double duty for computers and phones are especially problematic. One size does not really fit all. “Responsive design,” a set of techniques that supposedly can make a single site work equally well across multiple platforms with automatic adjustments for screen size and resolution, has not worked as well as promised. (The “boat-car of the Internet,” as James Ramsey puts it in Wired.)
While it is certainly more complex to create multiple versions of a website for multiple platforms, the effort can pay off in a better user experience. A long “about us” page with several images, for example, might be an easy and entertaining read on a laptop screen, but a chore on a smart phone with smaller fonts, shorter lines and a lot of scrolling to do.
What if instead of expecting the same page to serve both platforms, the company creates a different page for the mobile reader, with only one image and edited to a shorter length? The reader might miss some nuance, but in the hands of a skilled editor the mobile version could convey the essential information just as well, and leave the mobile reader feeling edified rather than exhausted.
A good copywriter can create multiple versions of pages from the same information, tailoring each to convey the message in the form best suited for the platform on which readers will see it. It’s a step worth considering.