Submitting perfect copy

Smart writers submit perfect copy because it allows them to maintain some control over their work after they turn it in. In the previous century, writers could depend on copy editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers to back them up, but all three groups either vanished or became so overburdened that we have lost much of our safety net. Some book publishers no longer copyedit manuscripts, and even The New York Times, formerly the bastion of accuracy, has slipped.

Readers perceive flawless prose as a mark of authority. When they spot errors, such as a misspelled name, they start doubting the information and the author. Writers who take responsibility for their own typescripts end up publishing fewer errors. So how do you achieve perfect copy?

Every word must be spelled right, especially names. Spell checkers catch things hard to see on a screen, like two words run together without a space between them. But they do only a rough job of catching misspelled words. Spell-checker software compares the words in the text with words in its vocabulary. If it finds the word in its list, it declares it spelled right; if not, it highlights it. Unfortunately, this software doesn’t allow for words that sound alike, so it will endorse this sentence: Their hiss know weigh two sea you’re feat. (There is no way to see your feet.) Don’t trust, and do verify.

Reading aloud makes most spelling errors jump out at you, because you have to read every word. Dedicated writers who spell poorly should correct that deficiency, by mastering a book on spelling, reading good fiction, and using devices like word-a-day calendars.

Some software will check grammar and usage, but only in crude ways. I told my word-processor to check this sentence, “Writing are fun.” No problem, it said. Again, you can best learn grammar and usage by handbooks and reading good prose.

How do you check names? My name is spelled simply: “Don Fry.” Half the writers who mention me in print spell my last name with an –e, “Frye.” They make that error by assuming. You get names right by careful gathering in the first place. You ask everybody you talk with for a business card; then you ask them if everything on the card is correct. Half the time, it isn’t, usually titles and email addresses. You ask people to spell their names, even Mary Smith, who replies, “M-E-R-R-Y S-M-Y-T-H-E.”

In final proofreading, you might check names with a phone directory, or Google. If you use the same name more than once in the same piece, compare them for consistency. If in doubt, call people up or send them an email query. You might feel stupid, but the person will admire your persistent accuracy. Finally, if you can, check names in photo captions, on maps and diagrams, and in back-of-the-book lists.

Numbers are harder to check, but you can mislead readers with just one too many zeros or a misplaced decimal point. Check them against the best sources, beyond the person you got it from. Do not trust previously published sources, such as newspaper clip files. Assume that numbers are wrong until verified. To check a phone number, call it.

Many publications have “Stylebooks,” sets of rules, mostly having to do with format. Baseball players observe the rules of their game, and you should follow the rules of our game. Perfect copy honors those templates; otherwise copy editors start changing things. If you must violate the Stylebook, add a note explaining why.

Fact checking goes beyond verifying things from your notes. Use directories, Google, and phone calls. When I write very tricky technical things, I often call the source and ask if I got it right. By the way, they usually tell me some new things I didn’t know.

The most careful writer I know, Bill Adair, is the most thorough checker I know. He prints a copy of his finished piece, and then reads it with a red pen in hand. He asks if each fact is correct and each name is spelled correctly, and marks a check if it is. He will often check the spelling of names he has written dozens of times, just to be sure. Borderline overkill, but Bill has rarely printed corrections. (By the way, I sent him this paragraph to confirm it. He did, whew.)

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm  Comments (15)  

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Don: I am using your article “Submitting perfect copy” as part part of the midterm for my advanced reporting class at the Indiana University School of Journalism. I am asking students to review the piece, write a summary of what they found most interesting/useful, and leave a comment for you. Maybe we can get a dialogue going.

  2. Don: Great article and great advice. When I started writing my editors taught me tricks for fact checking and I try to stick with them every time I write, although sometimes I’ll admit I get lazy.

  3. I commend you, Don. Not yet in my quest for a journalism degree have I been exposed to any idea so turgid as the checking off of each and every word in an article. Bill Adair has my respect. Not only does this help to highlight the standards of professional journalists, it reminds you to review your work as though potentially flawed at every turn, which can only produce the best copy possible.

  4. Helpful article, very good information. I’ll admit I get in a hurry a lot of the time and just use spell checker, and that hasn’t always served me well in the past because it doesn’t catch all the errors. Reading it aloud before submitting is something I’m going to try in the future.

  5. You make excellent points here. Thanks for this article. I have learned the hard way not to rely on spell check alone. What works for me is to take some time to walk away. When working on an article – and staring at it for a long period of time – I always take a small break. When I return I will find more mistakes than I would if I had starred at it for three hours.

  6. Very good advice given in this article. It reminded me yet again that even the simplest thing can be the biggest mistake. I’ll admit I rush through things, especially with a deadline on the horizon, and miss those really stupid typos. After going through this I’ll definitely go through and read it aloud again.

  7. Thank you for all the great advice in this article, especially the bit about reading your stories out loud. I know my brain moves faster than my fingers can type, and so by reading out loud, I could probably catch not only misspelled words but also missing words, unclear wordings and awkward sentence structure.

  8. After reading your article I now have a greater appreciation of self-editing my own work. I understand that just using spell check, is not the proper form of self-editing, that you must go over every last single word and check dictionaries, and in some cases phones. I have also learned that there is nothing wrong always double-checking your work and reading it out loud in order to see if a sentence sounds correct or if it makes sense. Thank you.

  9. Thank you very much for all of your helpful advice. Reading the story aloud will definitely help me in finding errors in all areas; spelling, grammar, and sentence structures. Sometimes I do not catch or realize the errors I make in my own writing, which is why it is important to re-read the piece over and aloud.

  10. Don, this is something that I think everyone needs to read, not just journalists. In school we are taught to go back and check what we wrote, but this usually in tales running it through spell check. Technology is slowly diminishing the ability of good writers by allowing them to be lazy. Thanks for the article.

  11. […] I highly recommend the “possibly related post” listed below on Submitting perfect copy. And I really do follow the advice in it most of the time. Just didn’t this week. Possibly related […]

  12. You can tell Don Fry has never worked as a journalist on a daily newspaper. His keys to perfect copy are unworkable in any era but particularly in todays journalism when reporters write not only for the web (updating regularly) but also for the next day’s paper (explanatory piece)and then take a pix along the way, will you. In other words, there is simply not enough time to follow Fry’s ideals. The solution is enough editors and fact checkers. The reason fact checkers are important is because they bring a whole new pair of eyes to a story and its supporting material. This is extremely important. I have personally written errors into my copy i know to be wrong but my fingers are typing one thing and my brain another. (Or something like that. Who knows why it happens. Maybe it’s when the brain achieves self-awareness and goes freelance.) And when I read the story over, I still don’t catch the error. It often takes a third party to catch these errors. Only recently a colleague of mine inserted the same major error twice into his column. He’s a careful guy. He just didn’t see it. Nor did his editor. Nor did the copy editor. It was caught only because another reporter happened to be reading it in the system before it was sent off. The columnist is eternally grateful to that reporter.
    Of course you always ask people to spell their names. And you always read your copy over. That’s normal. But nothing can beat third party scrutiny.
    Don seems to want reporters to be responsible for everything. Can’t be done.
    (I have not read this comment over. don’t have time.)

  13. Thanks, Bill. I will add the idea of getting a colleague to read things before filing to this post in revision. (Awful sentence).
    Over the years, reporters have said to me they didn’t have time for this or that: multiple sources, thinking, writing in anything but the inverted pyramid, spelling, etc. Organized reporters do have time for getting things right, and that’s why I write things telling them how to be organized. (Actually this blog/book is not aimed at journalists but at general non-fiction writers. ) The solution is not more editors and copy editors, which is not going to happen. Everybody has to send the most nearly perfect copy possible down the pipe, and that includes reporters. If we decide that getting it right is impossible, it will be.

  14. […] close to finished when you’ve done the techniques I described in my post on “Submitting perfect copy: Use the spelling and grammar and usage checkers, (trusting none of them), read aloud, check names […]

  15. Good info Bos Thanks, and goodluck

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