Obsession Thursday: There is no substitute for intelligent, human copy editing and proofreading

A quick glance at this lazily worded headline might alarm my fellow geeks
A quick glance at this lazily worded headline might alarm my fellow geeks

As a recovering proofreader and editor (20 years in the advertising business), the hairs on the back of my neck go way up when I see something like the news headline at left that I spotted this morning.

No, Doctor Who didn’t survive Ebola. He didn’t get it. Keep reading. But our internet-trained brains scan text for key phrases, and when we see “hero” a few words later, it only serves to extend the period of confusion.

It’s actually a simple news story. But a little more attention to the headline probably was warranted.

When services like Grammarly claim to be “automated proofreaders”, I want to wave my hands in the air and flail about like a deranged muppet.  There is no such thing. We all know how fallible spellcheck is without a human to watch over it and choose which changes to allow. Nothing yet invented can replicate the skill of a properly trained (and caffeinated) proofreader or copy editor. See, Grammarly recently published a scathing (ha) critique of the lame writing in that 50 Shades novel based on the “errors” its service found. I’m sure you’ve seen it all over the place. Except what they wrote is wrong. This thoughtful rebuttal by a mystery writer explains why. If you can’t trust the article, not sure how you can trust the service.

Proofreaders and Copy Editors are often first against the wall when the revolution comes. (They’re the first to be laid off when the budget is cut or money suddenly becomes tight because so many companies see them as a luxury.) It’s a crime against language. If we don’t defend our words, who will?

Note: I don’t claim that Knitty is error free. We do our best, but we don’t have a dedicated proofreader. That’s why I’m so glad we’re online…we can fix typos after a launch without requiring new film, a new press run and a huge loss of revenue. 20 years of stress over typos that went to print was enough for me. We do our best, and we fix the rest.

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17 thoughts on “Obsession Thursday: There is no substitute for intelligent, human copy editing and proofreading

  1. Uta

    oh Amy, I nearly spat my tea on the keyboard reading this 😉
    What Would Help This Other Person: Not Starting almost Every Word in its Header With a CAPITAL 🙂

  2. Judy mills

    I often notice mistakes when I’m reading, even in books. I often thought that I’d like to be a proofreader

  3. Kelly H.

    I loved my job as Copy Editor! I’m with you all the way that it is not a position to be sloughed off so lightly, yet is. For shame.
    (Aside, your new page layout, though nice and clean, scrolls strangely and is therefore hard to read on my small screened laptop running Firefox. Thought I’d let you know.)

  4. Dot

    I’m sure you’ve also noticed that humans no longer write indexes. The manual that came with my car now has many penciled notes in its index. I keep saying “Why did they call it THAT in the index?”

  5. sherinik

    It’s a comment both on the general level of language and on the general level of media. Headlines, it seems, don’t have to be accurate, even to the point of spinning counter to the text of the piece. The excessive use of pronouns with multiple possible references is another one which promulgates confusion. Why is grammar such a black art? It has rules! Nice neat orderly rules.

  6. Alicia

    Random question, but how does one BECOME a professional copy editor/proofreader? I love that kind of thing and finding errors in printed material makes me unnaturally angry, so I feel like it might be a good skill to pursue on the job front. Is there specific training? Do I need to be an English major? I have a master’s degree in science and just happen to be a good writer, but I have no formal training in editing and am curious about the process.

    1. Amy

      My experience isn’t typical. My degree is in Radio & Television, but I do know there are college courses (and continuing ed courses) in Copy Editing and Proofreading. You need to be rock solid on grammar and spelling, or at least know how to look up something when you don’t know which is the correct choice. And you must know the standard proofreading symbols. Once you have the skill set, you might want to volunteer on a charity newsletter or something like that to get experience, and then you can offer your services professionally. Some companies will likely test your proficiency before hiring you, since it really is a quantifiable skill. You can also freelance, but without any experience, it’s hard to get jobs.

      You’ll also want to start a collection of reference books — this page has a great list: http://www.sfep.org.uk/pub/gen/recrefs.asp
      You don’t need them all, but a good dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style could be considered essential.

      Anyone else have tips for Alicia?

  7. EL

    Sorry, but if the intention was to make it Dr. Who, wouldn’t the writer have put a comma after “Ebola”? And wouldn’t it have been “survives” to parallel “says”? I don’t see the problem.

  8. saggy

    From the article, it appears the doctor *did* have Ebola, in Guinea. I agree with the call for careful proofreading, but I’m not sure what the problem is here.

  9. marciepooh

    The lack of punctuation in headlines can often lead to interesting reading.

    My personal favorite typo in print was in piece, where the author spent a great deal of time praise the usefulness of a “wench” on a four-wheeler when hunting. It would have been a perfectly unremarkable column if it had been about winches.

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