Tag Archives: Editing

Proofreading lessons

Is it kid’s meals or kids’ meals or kids meals? That was the sticking point in November, when we published our annual “Kids Eat Free” directory.

Today, as I assembled seven proofreaders’ corrections to our June issue, there were questions about colons, capitalizations and hyphens.

One of my proofers noticed inconsistencies in how we were treating the first word following a colon. The rule is that a complete sentence following a colon requires a capitalized first word and a list (of words or phrases that are not complete sentences) does not. So this is correct:

What they found caught my attention: Men who had good memories of their relationships with their fathers while growing up better handled the stresses of adult life. (This is from a story about how dads can build good relationships with their children.)

And this is correct:

Other examples of adaptations: placing extra straps and pads on wheelchairs and walkers or re-wiring toys so a child who is unable to manipulate them can interact by touch or use a communication device… (From a story about Southwest Human Development’s new A.D.A.P.T. store.)

Moving on to our capitalization dilemma. When is a father “Dad” versus “dad”…?

Dad is capitalized only when used as a proper noun. So it’s “a dad” or “my dad” or “time spent with dad” (because you’re not talking about a specific dad but instead using the word as one would use the phrase “a dad”) … but “Dad (as in my dad, the guy I call “Dad” ) and I love fishing.”

Another capitalization catch: Our resident Francophile Mary Ann Bashaw noticed that we had used “french doors,” not “French doors” in a description of amenities at a hotel listed in our June issue’s directory of family-friendly resorts. The capitalized version is correct, as is French toast and French fries and French pedicure.

Another story in our June issue mentioned a “six-and-a-half pound baby.” It was missing a hyphen and should have been “six-and-a-half-pound baby.”

Enough for today. And by the way, it’s “kids meal.”

“Kid’s meal” means a meal that belongs to one child. “Kids’ meal” means one meal that belongs to a bunch of kids (and I would not want to negotiate that sharing lesson). “Kids meal” means a meal planned/prepared/priced (or whatever) to be appropriate for kids.

The gifts of writing

1979: Marbo Caves, Guam.

It has been a lot of years — more than 30 — since I have submitted a freelance article to an editor. The last time I did, as a senior year college student at the University of Guam, my approach was very different.

I typed my story, which was about an education program on the Northern Marianas island of Rota, on a manual typewriter. (I typed it several times, in fact, because I was unwilling to submit it with even a single typo or blot of Wite-Out.) I dropped my finished article in the mail at the campus post office. Several weeks later, when it was published in the Islander magazine section of the Pacific Daily News, I was overcome to see my words, and my name, in print.

For the past 21 years, as the editor of Raising Arizona Kids magazine, I have been on the other side of that experience. I’m the one who creates opportunities for writers, the one who makes decisions about whether something is worthy of pubication, the one who nurtures and encourages writers but also reluctantly wields the power to crush their confidence. So I approached my recent independent freelance assignment — a story about EthiopiaStudio, a design studio for sixth-year architecture students at ASU — with a great deal of reverence and care.

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Questions about copyediting

Maggie Pingolt, a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications, called our office to ask if she could interview one of our copyeditors. Ours work on contract, so they aren’t typically in the office.

“I supervise the copyeditors,” I said. “Do you want to talk to me?” I was on my way out the door but we agreed to a time later that day to talk on the phone.

Being interviewed by someone isn’t a routine event for me. I’m used to being on the “asking questions” side of interviews and I was surprised to realize how hard it is to talk about the things you do and think about every day.

Maggie: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Me: Okay, this is kind of a joke, but not really. Keeping up with my email! I get so many hundreds of emails each day it’s beyond manageable. The rest of my job as editor is joyful. I like what I do. But the effort to keep up with my email is a constant source of stress and really eats up my time.

Maggie: Describe your office environment in one word.

Me: The first word that comes to mind is “crazy.” We always have a lot going on at once because we’re a really small staff trying to do the work of a bigger magazine. Call it “crazy,” “chaotic”…any way you can think of to say it that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic. By the way, this isn’t going to published anywhere, is it?

Just then, our staff writer/photographer, Daniel Friedman, walked by my office door and I heard Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist call out, “Hi, fried man!”

Maggie: If you could change one aspect of copyediting, what would it be?

Me: These are hard questions! I guess the only thing I really wish I could change is that I wouldn’t miss things. We have several layers of copyeditors who read the magazine before it goes to press and yet there is no way to ever get it perfect. You’re never going to be able to change one thing that solves all the problems. You’re dealing with human beings and a complex language with all sorts of exceptions to rules. I like rules, stylebooks…they give me a sense of certainty as opposed to having to make judgment calls.

I wish copyediting didn’t take so long, but it does — to get it right. I wish it weren’t so important but it is. In this day and age, where everyone is throwing stuff up on the web without a second thought, I worry that the value of copyediting, and factchecking in particular, has been lost.

Maggie: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into the field of copyediting?

Me: Really know the basics — grammar, spelling…and understand how important factchecking is. Study the AP Stylebook, get the app on your iPhone and use it…basics! I can’t tell you how many freelance submissions I get on a daily basis with typos, grammatical errors, informal language…it’s disrespectful to an editor to be so sloppy. People don’t take the time they should. All writers should think of themselves as students who are trying to impress the teacher.

Maggie: What’s your biggest pet peeve as an editor?

Me: That’s an easy one: People who are sloppy. Sloppiness indicates disrespect…they couldn’t take the time. I’m a firm believer that you do something until it’s as good as it can be, and only then do you let it go.

Maggie: Are there specific examples of grammar or word-use errors that bother you?

Me: Things that bother me? “It’s” and “its”…a lot of people don’t get that you only use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” Not the possessive.

I cringe when I see “all right” spelled as one word: “alright.” And then “there,” “their,” “they’re”…people misuse those all the time.  I can’t stand run-on sentences…all of that drives me crazy.

We all make mistakes; don’t get me wrong. But when I see a freelance submission that has more than one or two it makes me want to claw my eyes out.

Memories of Japan

I have a standing appointment each Tuesday morning at 9. Afterward, I typically stop by a nearby coffee shop to get a coffee and a bottle of water. Then I pull out my laptop and get to work. Though the location offers free wi-fi, I try to avoid using it. Internet connectivity breeds distractions. This is my editing time and I need to focus.

Like clockwork, four other people show up at the same coffee shop at the same time. First, an elderly couple shuffles slowly through the door with someone who appears to be their daughter. A bit later, a younger woman, probably a granddaughter, arrives. They order drinks. The man helps his wife remove her sweater. She starts coughing and he slowly, ever-so-lovingly rises from his chair to pat her gently on the back.

They sit at their table for about an hour, laughing and talking and sharing stories. They seem very happy to be together. I look up at them periodically and smile. It’s a nice thing to witness — three generations enjoying each other’s company.

The gentleman has started acknowledging me, typically starting a conversation about my laptop. As in, “I just can’t figure those things” or “How do you like that model?” Today, as I was packing my laptop and getting ready to leave, he said, “Was that made in Japan? Because I understand that there won’t be any more computers coming from Japan for awhile. Cars either.”

I nodded, solemnly acknowledging the momentous disaster in Japan. “It’s terrible, isn’t it? Hard to even imagine.”

“You know I lived there for awhile,” he said. “During the war. I’ve been to a lot of those cities. I still have friends there. I wonder if they are alive.”

He told me what it was like to be a young member of the U.S. armed forces in Japan at that time. How he was initially hesitant to communicate with the Japanese people. How he started out “hating them” because they were the enemy. “But, you know?” he said. “Once I lived there for a while and got to know them as human beings, I liked them very much.”

His companions started their own preparations to leave. The granddaughter gave me a look. You know, the one that says, “Thanks for indulging him. For being nice and listening to him.”

I was only too happy to do so, thinking as I did about the many times when I was younger and didn’t get it. When I’d listen impatiently, half-heartedly, to the stories of elders in my own family tree. Stories that will be lost to history because I couldn’t be bothered to give them my full attention or, better yet, to write them down.

—————————————–

Musse, Brian, Tesfanesh, Jesmina (standing), Keri and Solomon deGuzman with Judge Owens.

TOMORROW: “An Ethiopia Adoption Story,” the sequel

A full eight months after they first held two small babies in their arms, Brian and Keri deGuzman appeared at Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa today to hear The Honorable Bernard C. Owens finalize the adoptions of Tesfanesh and Mintesnot-Solomon Brian deGuzman. Owens is the same judge who granted adoption petitions for older siblings Jesmina (4) and Musse (2).

I was in the courtroom to follow up on my December story about my journey to Ethiopia with the deGuzmans. Look for more photos and my update (including an amazing “small world” story) tomorrow.

Pet peeves about press releases – #3

A good friend of mine works in public relations. I love her approach. She takes time to learn about her client’s business. She works hard to cultivate meaningful relationships with contacts in the media. She thinks of creative approaches to her story pitches that leave an editor or producer curious to learn more. She becomes familiar with deadlines so the timing of her pitches is appropriate. And she understands that the quality (of a story’s placement) is sometimes more effective than quantity (of media outlets that run with it).

As someone who works on the other side of this equation — and gets tired, sometimes, of all the publicity-seeking people who want, expect and often demand that I do something for them — I appreciate the value of my friend’s approach. I wish more people in her industry would model it. Because here’s what happens. When I get bombarded with press releases from public relations contacts who haven’t taken the time to learn about our publication, our audience, our deadlines or our needs, I eventually stop paying attention.

And when I get a little nugget of something from a PR rep who has done his/her homework, and it turns into a good story for us, I am very much apt to pay attention the next time that person gets in touch.

Editors are human. Sometimes we’re arrogant, sometimes we’re lazy and sometimes we’re just overwhelmed and understaffed. So when someone figures out a way to help us look good, and make our lives easier, we’re grateful. And when someone wastes our time, fills our inboxes with meaningless information or doesn’t have a clue about our publication’s real needs, we’re dismissive.

How to get it right:

Research the publications you plan to approach. Find out about deadline, target audience, focus and specific departments in which your material might work. Request an editorial calendar that will give you a general idea of content themes planned for upcoming months. (We post ours online.)

Find out who does editorial triage. Focus your communication efforts on the person in charge of the specific section in which you feel your information belongs. (For a small company like mine, that would be me.) Trust that person to relay items of interest to the appropriate writers and editors. When you send your press release to everyone on the editorial staff, hoping it gets to the right person, the wrong people are forced to spend time dealing with it, which reduces their productivity.

Write your press release as simply and straightforwardly as you can. Stick to the basics: who, what, where, when and why. Make sure any timely aspect about your information is prominent. Don’t hide the main point on the second page. Don’t have a second page!

Be as specific as possible. We get numerous requests to “write a story about our school” or community group or upcoming fundraiser. You need to think of a unique or interesting angle that would make us want to follow up with a very specific story and that’s always going to come from some smaller piece of the big picture.

Include your full contact information. We need a name, phone number and email address to contact if we have questions. We also need to know who members of the public can contact, if that’s different.

Make sure your release is reviewed by a second set of eyes. Nothing irks an editor more than glaring errors in a document and I don’t think “irked” is the response you are hoping for. Have someone (or two) read behind you before you send it.

One last thing. When you’re seeking publicity for someone or something, don’t expect to control the outcome. No professionally run publication will allow you to review an article prior to publication. (You’d be surprised how often that question is asked.) And while you’re welcome to suggest how we focus a story, we can’t guarantee it will come out that way.

Editing your kids’ work

A friend once sent me an email asking how much I helped my sons with their writing assignments.

“They surely sought out and valued your editing skills as they moved through school,” she wrote.

I wish! I think because I am an editor my kids were very self-conscious about sharing their work with me. Once they got past elementary school, I rarely saw a writing assignment. It was only begrudgingly that my sons allowed me to look at their college application essays.

My oldest son Andy got all the way to his senior thesis in college before he finally asked for help — and that was only because he wanted his paper squeaky clean and recognized the fatigue factor in catching your own typos and grammatical errors. David managed to get all the way through college — including a thesis of his own — without a single parental eyeball on his written work.

It is so hard to read your own child’s writing. They are writing at their developmental level. You are reading at yours. You may know ways to make something “sound better” and you may have great ideas for a smooth transition but really, is that the kind of help you should be offering?

I opted for a hands-off approach. I followed my sons’ lead and didn’t get involved unless help was requested. I do, however, have some specific suggestions for those of you whose children may be more willing than mine were to ask for your input.

• Bracket areas you think are confusing and add notes like “maybe there’s a better way to say this?” or “I’m not sure I understand what you meant here.”

• To make suggestions about flow, bracket entire sections and note that “this might go better closer to the top” or “It seems like this section belongs with the point you made about [whatever].”

• Circle typos, grammatical errors and punctuation errors but make your children correct them so they [hopefully!] remember the next time. (My sons consistently made errors with there/their/they’re…it drove me crazy!)

Both of my sons managed to become excellent writers without me, so we either lucked into great teachers or they simply got better as they got older. My advice is that you ask your children how much they want you to nitpick. Do they want feedback on whether they have made their point? Whether the flow is logical/easy to follow? Whether particular phrasing is effective? Or do they just want you to look for obvious errors in typing, spelling, grammar and punctuation? Let them set the ground rules.

Beyond that, I think it’s much more effective to help your child find a neutral adult with whom they can seek feedback, whether it’s a teacher, tutor, family member or friend. I used to read a lot of my friends’ kids’ college application essays. Criticism is always easier to take from someone who’s not your mom.

Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

People who make mundane tasks fun

I always look forward to collecting proofreading pages from Mary Ann Bashaw, who does double duty as a writer and copy editor for Raising Arizona Kids.

Mary Ann is one of those people who makes everything feel like a celebration. She is positive, joyful and often quite funny. Never do I appreciate those qualities more than when we are slogging through the proofreading process and making final corrections to each month’s magazine.

Mary Ann often draws smiley faces on articles she likes, or adds comments in support of other staff members whose efforts she admires. “Applause!! Applause!!” she wrote on one occasion.

At the end of Brittney Walker’s upcoming article on co-sleeping, Mary Ann wrote, “EXCELLENT ARTICLE! Always a hot topic.” She also praised Brittney for a “good hook” leading readers into the article.

When she read  next month’s Health Matters article on cradle cap, Mary Ann shared the fact that her now-college-age daughter Claire had cradle cap as an infant “and look at her blond mane now!”

And on Lynn Trimble’s upcoming article about “Naming Your Baby,” Mary Ann noticed that her younger daughter’s name, “Hannah,” had dropped off the list of Top 20 baby names in Arizona. “She’ll be glad to know that!” she noted, clearly in tune with her independent, one-of-a-kind daughter.

When my sons were growing up, I tried to point out people who made an effort not just to do their jobs but to enjoy them — whatever those jobs might be. In the often mundane realm of proofreading, Mary Ann is  one of the best examples I know.

Want to impress an editor? A follow-up…

When I wrote last week about the “Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story,” I got a comment from a local author who asked that I expound on two of my points.

“The writer’s perspective of interesting topic/compelling story may not be the same as that of the editor — hence the query,” she wrote. “We can only do so much research into the magazine (and, yes, read the guidelines). But it inevitably becomes a judgement call for the editor. And…when do we find out? What is the typical time period for acceptance/rejection?”

I listened to a webinar recently in which book agent Irene Goodman (founder of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency) spoke about the challenges writers face getting attention for their ideas within a vast sea of queries. What struck me most about her response was her emphasis on the role of serendipity.

Editors (and apparently literary agents) are human; we have good days and bad days, high-energy days and low-energy days, days when we feel receptive to taking a chance on a previously unknown writer and days when we prefer the security of proven relationships. There are days when we feel inundated and resistant and days when we feel somewhat on top on things and open to something new. On a good day, we may make an effort to respond thoughtfully, in the interest of helping a writer grow. On days when we are exhausted, drowning in emails and feeling like everyone is clawing for a part of us we may respond with a curt “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” — or simply ignore the message.

So unfortunately, a lot of it is timing and happenstance, neither of which offer much help to a writer who just wants an answer. But an editor’s job involves triage; whatever is most pressing for the next deadline is what gets the time and attention. That said, when I see something truly fresh and exciting it rarely gets lost in the queue.

Which brings me to something else Goodman said: “Maybe equals no.” Or perhaps it should.

Like many people who want to be thought of as considerate human beings, I struggle with the challenge of saying “no.” So sometimes I’ll sit on something mediocre for too long, with the good intention of getting back to the writer with some guidance and direction, when I should have trusted that squirmy sense in my stomach that was telling me “just say no.” And then, because each day brings its own ensuing avalanche of messages to consider, I may never get to it. Not because I intend to be mean or thoughtless or arrogant, but because I’m only one person and I only have so many waking hours in the day.

Jana Bommersbach addressed this question in the Piper Writing Center class I took in November. If you haven’t heard from an editor after a month, she suggested, send a follow-up email to ask politely if your query was received and to check on its status. (It’s always possible that the editor never got your email, after all, or that it got lost in the shuffle.)

If another month goes by and you still haven’t heard, I would suggest one more respectful contact. After that, wait another couple of weeks. If you haven’t gotten anything in response by that point, you should probably move on.

What Goodman says about book pitches certainly applies for magazines: “If two months has gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it’s probably a ‘no.'”

In the lightning-fast world of communication, the gears of editorial judgment and feedback still grind painfully slowly. I’m getting a taste of my own medicine lately as I pitch stories of my own to other publications, so I know how discouraging it can be.

Want to impress an editor? What NOT do to…

After nearly 30 years of work in the publishing field, I’ve decided it’s time to polish my own writing skills. So I’ve been buying books about writing, signing up for webinars and taking some classes through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

I entered this process as a wide-eyed student, eager to learn from others and apply their insights to my own work. Sometimes I forget how much I already know.

In November, I took a Piper Center class taught by Jana Bommersbach, one of Arizona’s most acclaimed journalists and authors.  The class was called “Making Your Story Sing: How to Write a Great Magazine Piece.” When I introduced myself to the small group gathered in a cozy front room of the historic Piper Writers House on the Arizona State University main campus, I expected — and saw — a few raised eyebrows. I could almost hear the thoughts: What is a magazine editor, someone who buys magazine articles, doing here?

So I explained. I told the group that after 21 years of publishing Raising Arizona Kids, of telling other writers how to improve their writing, I needed some juice. I wanted ideas to help me critique and coach other writers. And I craved inspiration for my own writing projects, including a book I am working on about my experience with a Paradise Valley couple who adopted four children from Ethiopia.

Jana is a gifted writer; she’s also a natural and effective teacher. I found myself hanging on her every word, scribbling notes to help me remember her very practical tips of the trade. Toward the end of the class, as we were about to run out of time, someone asked her to speak about the toughest part of writing: selling your work.

And I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I found myself jumping in, adding examples of what not to do when sending a query to an editor. I don’t think I realized, until I got started, just how passionately I feel about this topic. I got so involved “contributing” my perspective that I stopped taking notes. So I can’t really remember which of the following suggestions were mine and which were Jana’s.

Top 10 Terrible Ways to Pitch a Story

1.) Tell me why I should publish your article. Any variation on the theme of “you should” is a turn-off. You don’t get to tell me what to do. Your job is to grab my attention and curiosity — quickly — by sharing something fascinating about your story idea in the very first paragraph.

2.) Write to impress. I don’t care how big your words are or how proficient you’ve become with the thesaurus app on your iPhone. Do you have an interesting topic or a compelling human-interest angle? That’s all I care about.

3.) Make a pitch that’s blatantly self-promotional. Don’t offer to write a story about your own business/product/self-published book.

4.) Include a five-page resume. I’m not going to read it and I don’t care. If you can’t tell me who you are and why you’re qualified to write this story in a sentence or two, then you probably aren’t even sure yourself.

5.)  Send an email query with all the forethought you would put into texting your spouse about whose turn it is to pick up dinner. While email is many editors’ preferred method of contact, it is disheartening for us to see anything less than a well-thought-out, professionally crafted and somewhat formal message. Don’t use abbreviations, don’t try to sound like my best friend and please don’t let me see emoticons or “LOL” in your query.

6.) Hit “send” before you self-edit. Please don’t risk my snap judgment that you are sloppy, lazy or uneducated. Make sure your spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. Make sure you’re using the right words. One writer wanted me to publish her story of someone who’d gotten ” a bad wrap.” Rough day at the gift-wrapping counter? When you’re trying to impress someone with your writing ability, this kind of sloppiness is a big no-no.

7.) Call to check on the status of your query. No one likes being put on the spot — especially editors, who base much of their decision-making on experience and instinct and can’t always quickly summon the words to communicate reasons why an article doesn’t appeal. If I inadvertantly answer the phone at work and realize it’s a writer, my back goes up immediately. Always respect the editor’s stated preference for communication. I don’t know any editor who encourages phone conversations — except with established contributors.

8.) Don’t read my published guidelines for writers. Do I really need to explain this one?

9.) Pitch a story idea for a topic we have covered in the last year. The beauty of online archiving is that a quick keyword search will show you if your topic already has been covered. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of that tool?

10.) Make it painfully clear that you don’t really “get” my magazine. I can’t tell you the number of article queries I’ve gotten that have absolutely no relevance to my publication’s target audience. We are not a magazine for children. And we don’t publish fiction, poetry or crossword puzzles. The absolute worst thing a writer can do is try to market a story idea to a magazine he/she has never seen or read.