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Why editing is important; A view of reality
(Based on a lecture by Ross Collins, associate professor of communication, North Dakota State University)
So what, you say, so what if you happen to leave a few misspellings, a grammar error now and then, maybe a bit of a slow lead. Why be so anal about this? After all, we see this stuff in e-mails all the time, and yet everybody reads them.
Well, I'll agree with you that editors can be "anal" people, meaning, I suppose, detail-oriented people who question every little thing. In fact, detail-oriented people make good editors. So do people who have amassed encyclopedic knowledge of our world, people who are a bit on the shy side (the extroverts become reporters), people who like to work at a desk (editing might be a good career choice for some kinds of disabilities). Carr Van Anda, history's most famous copy editor (you've never heard of him? Shows copy editors seldom become celebrities), worked the turn-of-the-century desk at the New York Times. The story goes he was busy editing when a prankster slipped in a story in Latin. Without blinking, he edited it as handily as any English version. Now that's encyclopedic. Well, it also sounds a bit persnickety.
Likely Van Anda would argue that good editing gives a publication two qualities: consistency and credibility. Consistency helps your audience read your publication more easily. Lack of consistency, in spelling, for example, stops communication for an instant. The reader hits the inconsistency, wonders, is that the same reference as last time? The moment of ambiguity stops the flow of your communication for an instant, making your work harder to read. Do that often, and the work gets so tiring to read that people just quit. For instance, I recently read a book about early exploration of the Upper Midwest. Prominently described was the French explorer La Verendrye. Except that sometimes it was spelled La Verendye. Each time I'd pause, wonder if it was the same person, conclude it was, meandered mentally about what I thought was the correct spelling, if I'd been wrong all these years, if I should look it up in the encyclopedia, maybe go on line, but that would require getting up, but I have to go to the bathroom anyway, or should I go upstairs, but... you know how this kind of thing goes. All because the writer was inconsistent. Of course the one thing I wasn't doing: paying attention to the writing.
Consistency spreads a ribbon of smooth communication. It invites a reader to follow us, instead of challenging him to stay with us. But it's not the only reason introductory journalism instructors beat their students with that AP stylebook--well, figuratively, we hope. Editing also offers a publication credibility. Our readers are worried people. They wonder if the article they're reading is the truth, or a con job. Can I really believe this account of the commission meeting? Did the mayor really say this? What if you're putting me on, and I believe you? To maintain believability, you need to be careful to verify that everything you print is true, as far as you know it. But more than that, as an editor, you have to make sure your credibility isn't undermined by the little "false things," errors of grammar, spelling, even typographical errors. Because if you publish something containing a lot of these errors, people begin to doubt you. They think, "if this publication can't even get the little things right, how can I count on them for the bigger things? And a skepticism people bring to the printed word grows. Good editors know that even one typo mars credibility. And the more permanent the publication, the greater the damage. For instance, because a web site feels somewhat ephemeral, typos are a little more allowed than in a published book, which has a long shelf life. That's why publishers usually send books through several proof-readings.
The way errors damage a publication seems to be related to an underlying power differential between publishers and readers. The power of the word in type gives any publication a feeling of authority, as opposed to spoken or written words in everyday life. Those of us who tend to be uneasy with authority, annoyed by the feeling of powerlessness against the media, can point to a typo or grammar error as evidence of weakness: "That big important newspaper can't even spell, heh, heh!" It helps me to feel more empowered if I can drag down the big guys--or even smallish guys, like the community weekly, company magazine or corporate newsletter. So for credibility, you need to be scrupulous about little things, and it's the editor who is most responsible. Note that big nationally-circulated publications are invariably carefully edited. Even the supposedly "bad" ones. Next time you're at the supermarket, check out the tabloids. You'll seldom find a typo. They invariably know how to spell "alien," "boob job," and even "Michael Jackson." Irreverent publications like Mad magazine, or The Onion web site like to satirize and tweak, but they're careful about their grammar and spelling. You may not take seriously the National Enquirer, but the talented editors of that weekly take their work very seriously indeed.
The editor, then, shoulder major responsibility over what her or his publication will offer its readers. Credibility comes at the top of the list because, well, really, if no one believes what you publish, what's the point? You might as well write fiction. And even that needs careful editing. At the end of the day, no one respects publications that resemble a slap-dashed e-mail from a 14-year-old chat room addict.
I still haven't convinced you, have I? Okay, maybe YouTube will: check out "The Impotence of of Proofreading."
Still don't believe me? Okay, then, how about this video?
A View of Reality
The many roles editors play blend to leave a profound influence on a publication: its appearance, its writing style, its credibility, its content and presentation. We might gather these to conclude that editors' choices determine generally what this publication is all about. I call this the view of reality. It's defined through a publication's articles, photos, layout, artwork--everything that goes into that publication or web site adds up to a way it view our world. Every publication has a view of reality. For instance, Sports Illustrated declares that the world is mostly about sports. Gourmet declares that it's about cooking, eating and traveling. These specialty magazines obviously publish material relating to their view, and avoid material not relating to it. You likely won't find an article about the Super Bowl in Gourmet--or a feature on New Orleans restaurants in Sports Illustrated.
It's up to editors in their gatekeeper role to decide what gets published, and how, to reflect the publication's view of reality. Every publication has one, although sometimes it's not so obvious as the case of specialty magazines. What is your local newspaper's view of reality? Does it emphasize sports? Celebrities? Business news? Crime? Gossip? Exposés? World affairs? Local politics? While newspapers try to offer something for everyone, most regular readers discern an approach which favors some kinds of material over others. The New York Times would never be confused with the Devils Lake Journal--not that both newspapers aren't important to their readers. They just have a different view of reality.
An editor maintains his or her publication's view through a choice of articles, commentaries, essays, photographs, headlines, typeface, even advertisements. Nothing not pertaining to that view gets published. If you're editor of an industry's monthly newsletter to customers, for instance, say AgriBusiness Buzz, (Web site under construction) well, are you really going to publish a poem poking fun at corporate farming practices? Do you think you'll look fondly to an employee who offers to submit his best golf tips? Whether or not you've huddled with a publisher to form an explicit view of reality, you still implicitly know what gates to keep. In issue after issue, the personality and reputation of a publication is built and maintained by its editors.