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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: No contest again as Jim Terry wins Show Me the Errors

By Maggie Walter
August 5, 2011 | 7:20 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Some folks, fearful of misspeaking, shudder when they meet a copy editor. Some even imitate a supplicant as they seek forgiveness for grammatical transgressions.

Others feel free to launch into a lecture about an error they found in a recent edition. Still others commence to lambaste all copy editors at a particular publication and say, "I could do a better job than that." Others say, "Don't you spell check?" or, "Spell check won't catch everything, you know."

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Whether it's humility or hubris that is served up as a response, I still proudly say:

I am a copy editor. And, yes, we make mistakes, but you really should see all the errors that we do catch.

Anyone who thinks that copy editing is only a matter of catching obvious misspellings and grammatical errors has a poor understanding of the tasks that await an editing crew for any given edition. Such work is only the tip of the iceberg.

Here's why: Within every edition of a website or a newspaper are thousands of opportunities for an error and an equal number of opportunities for making a decision about that error.

There are many, many facts to check. Should that be $5 million or $5 billion? Is the business on East Walnut Street or West Walnut Street? Wait a minute. Doesn't Walnut Street run north and south? Or, does it? Did this accident happen on Tuesday or Wednesday? 

Names also abound, and each one needs to be checked, whether it be for a person, place or thing. With the recent abundance of creative spellings, it's become a bigger challenge to accurately check names. Some might argue that the Internet makes it easier to look up information. That's true sometimes, but in reality it often only muddies the issue, as a great deal of content on websites — especially spelling — is erroneous.

Beyond those more obvious checks, a copy editor also makes corrections for style. The Associated Press Stylebook is the prime arbiter of usage in most U.S. newsrooms. At the Missourian and ColumbiaMissourian.com, our own stylebook reigns supreme with the AP's guide as a supplement.

Copy editors also look at the organization of the story. Are the paragraphs in a good sequence to tell the story? Does some bit of information need to go higher in the story? Can the reader understand what's going on here? Did the reporter use the exact right words? Did the writer mean plague or plaque? What other questions need to be answered? Does the story make sense? Is it balanced and fair? Is there a baloney factor that needs to be expunged or at least questioned or explained? Are you skeptical about any of the information in the story? Why?

In other words, critical thinking is the best tool in our arsenal as we try to remember: It's always about the reader. Editing to make the story correct, consistent, clear, concise, coherent, complete and creative  — the seven C's of copy editing — is always the goal.

But there's more. Copy editors write all the online headlines and summary paragraphs for each story. They write captions for pictures and information boxes. They trim 40-inch stories to 3-inch stories. They also post photos, maps, graphics, documents and other supporting materials to the website. They write the same bits of information for the print edition. They proof graphics and pages. And they do all of these tasks in a setting that more often resembles the center of a whirlwind than a sedate office.

Really, we don't excuse or condone errors, but I hope you see why it's possible that a few dozen errors slip by us as we check and correct a few thousand other facts every day. But that's also why we value our participants in the Show Me the Errors contest.

Jim Terry, an art history professor at Stephens College who has been the unchallenged winner for many months, takes the honor again for July with 104 submissions. In second place is Pat Sweet, who also won second place in June. Overall, there were 129 corrections submitted by 43 participants.

We hope you will join the contest by letting us know when you spot an error. When you do, simply click on the Show Me the Errors box at the end of each article, fill it out and submit it. We'd really appreciate it.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com. At the top of this column in a note to the copy editors who might be reading this column prior to publication, she always writes: Please edit fiercely. Did they do their job? Please, let us know.