Error-free copy: Stop mistakes in writing

Apr 4th, 2009 | By | Category: Succeeding as an Intern


Making mistakes at work can be just as damaging to the newspaper and to you as unethical behavior is. This raises care and accuracy to the same level of importance as honesty.

An editor who was preparing to speak to college professors at the American Press Institute asked editors on a listserv for the No. 1 thing she could tell the professors that students needed to know before walking into the newsroom. I was surprised.

They told her the students need to work harder at being accurate. That’s all: simple accuracy.

But accuracy is not as easy to achieve as it is to understand. In the hurry to meet daily deadlines, relying on sources that don’t always get things right, and being human, we make mistakes.

An instructor at the University of Maryland based an article for the American Journalism Review on the observations of his students. One had said: “Being 99 percent accurate will get you fired.”

Use the strategies that veterans use to earn reputations for being rock-solid accurate:

• Always, always edit yourself before you let your article go. That means giving yourself an earlier deadline than the editor does. If you have to turn it in at 4 p.m., plan to be done writing at 3:30 p.m. and self-edit. Keep checking your story after you’ve turned it in and speak up if you’ve missed something. Pay special attention to facts—all facts. Be especially careful with the facts that are our most common source of trouble: names, numbers, and historical dates—including history as recent as last week.
• Never guess. Never assume. Look it up.
• Never take the lazy attitude that your editor or the copy desk will “catch it.” You’ll be the one to catch it if your sloppiness gives your editor a nervous condition.
• Some of the most accurate writers use this technique: After they have written their stories, they print them out and then literally
go over them with a pencil, circling and verifying every fact.
• Other reporters like to read their stories over again in a column that is narrower than full-screen width. They say they spot things
when the lines are not so wide.
• Do not use a spelling checker as a crutch.
• When you get the names of people you interview, have them write their names in your notebook. When you ask for their age, get the date and year of birth. Some people get their own ages wrong but seldom bobble their birth year. And a person who is 35 on one day can be 36 the next—it all depends on the birthday. If your notes have the date of birth, you can avoid a birthday surprise that puts an inaccurate age in the newspaper.
• If you take facts over the phone, read back to verify that what you think you heard is what the sources think they said.
• Check facts, even when they come from reliable sources. At the Detroit Free Press, the people who compile calendars handle enormous streams of information. One says that almost every press release has a mistake in it, so she makes a lot of calls to double- check. That is scary.
• Verify every phone number by calling the number you have typed on the computer, not by calling the number that is in your notes. If you type it wrong and call from your notes, you won’t catch it.
• Check every Web address, again, as it appears on your screen.

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