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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Copy editing resembles the art and method of solving mysteries

By Maggie Walter
February 25, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — "Elementary," cries Sherlock Holmes when he solves a mystery. The word is also used as the title of a current CBS television show featuring the intrepid detective (Jonny Lee Miller) and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).

It's an entertaining drama set in New York with the modern twist of a female sidekick to the recovering drug-addicted Sherlock. For folks who enjoy mysteries, check it out. It's one of the few television shows on my must-see list.

Perhaps it's a lifelong fascination with mysteries — whether they be television enactments or novels. I grew up on "Perry Mason" shows and still catch the reruns fairly often. (Truth be told, I have more than a little crush on the Mason character — tall, handsome with deep dimples, whip smart, sophisticated, kind, relentlessly on the side of the underdog, erudite and a heck of a clever attorney. Plus, he always drove a convertible. What's not to like?)

More likely, my love of mysteries stems from the similarity of copy editing to solving mysteries. A recent assignment in the introduction to news editing class perfectly drew parallels between the two activities. Copy editors, while seldom asked to solve murders like Mason or Sherlock are asked to do, must dig deep into articles to answer the same questions faced by detectives. Who is this character? Why does it matter what he or she did? Or said? Who's not represented in the article? Who gains? Who loses? Who are the other stakeholders?

Reporters often get caught up in the excitement of gathering the facts. It's not uncommon in that process to lose the whole picture of a story. It's the copy editor's job to make sure all the pieces are discovered, arranged in a reasonable order and connected to the premise of why this should matter to the reader. They then have to work with the reporter to bring it all together.

Participants in the's Show Me the Errors contest could readily join in. During January, there were eight participants in the contest with a total of 13 submissions. Jim Terry, a regular contributor, pointed out six errors for the month. The winner of the drawing for the monthly contest is Justin Willett.

He will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at In honor of National Grammar Day on March 4, editing students at the Missouri School of Journalism will engage in a guerrilla grammar blitz. They will be handing out business-sized cards with remedies to avoid the most common grammar mistakes. Maybe, you'll be lucky enough to receive one from them.