Graphic design, page layout and formatting from Cape Fear Publishers
Great writers need great editors. Click for a classic example.
Editing services for authors from Cape Fear Publishers
Editing services for authors from Cape Fear Publishers
Home
Graphic design
Data management
Proof reading
Copy editing
In-depth editing
Fact Checking
Writing coaching
Ghost writing and co-authorship
John Meyer's editing blog
Editing and writing
John Meyer's editing blog
A curmudgeon's blog about the art of editing,
with thoughts about language, facts and news
Why editing is necessary, and what's up when it doesn't get done
  By John Meyer These are my thoughts and opinions about clear language and sincerity. Have a contrary opinion? Want to add to the discussion? Let me hear from you.

John Meyer Talk to me.
GO
to email.
 

A cranky curmudgeon's
weblog on editing, news
and the English language
  Good writing -- and good editing -- boil down to this: Your words should say exactly what you mean. That idea encompasses both accuracy and clarity. As I pontificate on specifics of how that plays out in the real world, I encourage anyone to weigh in. Heartily endorse, or triumphantly demolish, my arguments, as you please. I welcome all thoughtful commentary.


September 5, 2015
Can you trust your local paper? Why datelines matter

  Everybody hates being lied to. It's especially disheartening when you find that a person, or institution, that you want to trust proves to be less than honest. Worse yet when the dishonesty is a matter of deliberate policy, imposed from the top.
  For eons now, newspapers have been putting datelines -- the likes of "WASHINGTON" or "LONDON" or "BEIRUT" -- on stories, to give readers a sense of where they originated. The standard is summarized in The Associated Press Stylebook, which says the dateline should tell the reader that the basic information for the story was obtained in the datelined city. A dateline is appropriate, the AP says, "only if the basic information in a story was obtained by a full- or part-time correspondent physically present in the dateline community." (My emphasis.)
  But for some time now, my local newsroom's current regime has dictated that stories carry datelines that fit into one of three categories:
  Stupid. For example: "SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA." Or "NEW HANOVER COUNTY." Given that the paper is published in New Hanover County, a compact but still sizeable slice of Southeastern North Carolina, what does this tell us? That the paper's reporters weren't out of town on vacation when reporting their stories? Of course, whether those reporters are ever guilty of "phoning it in" is different question.
  Speaking of phoning it in, I saw a couple of "COLUMBUS COUNTY" datelines on the same day recently. Really? Where, exactly, in that vast and colorful rural territory? Whiteville? Lake Waccamaw? Maybe Tabor City or Evergreen? Nakina, Red Bug or Crusoe Island? Nah. The reporter whose name was on those items never got close to any of those places. Certaintly not now; likely, not ever. And, contrary to a longstanding and respectable practice for reporting at a distance, didn't even pick up the phone to ask any questions. Just put her name on a couple of days-old press releases and let it go at that.
  Pointless. That's what the "WILMINGTON" dateline is, on any story reported by a Wilmington paper. The point of the dateline is to highlight those stories that required greater effort, getting the writer away from comfy desk and computer and out into the real world. Of course, if that story should be picked up by the AP and sent out far and wide, it's the wire service's job to slap on the originating paper's dateline, for the information of readers of other papers. But here at home? Please.
  Dishonest. Datelining stories on the basis of what they're about, regardless of whether any real reporting took place in the field, actively misleads readers. In two ways. First, by implying that a reporter sitting in a windowless room took the time and effort to get off his or her butt. That the reporter ventured out into the real world to observe, interview and question. Second is to disguise the fact that entirely too much of what fills todays papers isn't news at all; not in in the sense of independently reported, objective information. Rewriting (or running verbatim) a press release, then putting your byline and a phony dateline on it, is a serious con job on trusting readers.
  This is the situation that finally led me, after months of growing irritation, to send email queries to a number of reporters whose bylines appeared on purportedly local stories in my hometown daily. One was a brief item, datelined "DAYTONA BEACH, FLA" about how the ocean rescue team from Wrightsville Beach, N.C. had won a lifeguard competition. My (not entirely innocent) questions: "When were you in Daytona Beach to report on this story? Since it says the competition took place on Aug. 7 through 9, Iím curious about why the story is appearing only today, 10 days after the fact. Did you get any photographs? Interviews with the competitors? Local color? Insight into the competition? It seems to me that if youíre going to go to the time and expense of traveling to Florida to report on an event like this, the report should have more substance and detail."
  The reporter, who I won't embarrass by naming, replied: "We were not able to travel to Daytona Beach and reported on the results provided by the Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue team after the competition."
  Sez I: "If you werenít in Daytona Beach to report the story, why does it carry a dateline that says you were?"
  Reporter: "The dateline represented where the story originated."
  Another story that same day, about proposals to develop an interesting little patch of land a fair way out in the boondocks, carried the intriguing dateline "MONK'S ISLAND." So to that reporter went this query: "When did you visit the island? How would you describe the landscape? What, if anything, did you observe that has already been built on the island?"
  I'll let others judge whether this reply counts as "weaselly." But seriously: "I didnít head out to the island this time around, but Iíve been assured that nothingís changed since we wrote our article a couple years ago (the one that the photo is from)."
  A couple of years ago. When "we wrote" it. Very likely not even the same reporter. So I posed one more faux-naive question:
  "If this story was not reported from the island, why does the story carry a dateline?"
  Finally, this non-answer: "We have a policy of putting datelines on all of our stories." And a suggestion to take the matter up with the newsroom managers who set that policy.
  Bottom line: I got confirmation that this is a matter of deliberate newsroom policy, not just carelessness. The purported editors of a respected daily paper are instructing reporters to place phony datelines on their stories. It's a policy that any journalist who cares about his or her readers should realize is fundamentally dishonest. My challenge to all reporters is to review what the AP Stylebook has to say, and to reflect about the purpose of datelines.
  That place name on your story -- and "SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA" is not a place name worthy of that status -- is to inform readers of where stories were reported. (If they were reported at all, and not merely transcribed.) Not what remote place a reporter might like to pretend he visited in the course of his reporting. Having done that, I'd hope those reporters would then think about how that deceptive newsroom "policy" jibes with their own sense of ethics and their personal responsibilities as journalists.
  And, maybe, just maybe, before the inevitable next round of layoffs thins their numbers even more, have the integrity to speak up and say, "This is wrong."

March 2, 2014
"Progressive complications" vs. a mundane tale

  What makes a great story different from a yawner? This subject can (and has) consumed many a writers' seminar and English-lit class, and it's at the heart of what agents and publishers do. This has been endlessly discussed with literary-analysis jargon like "story arc" or what's been summarized as a character's "GMCs: goals, motivation and conflicts."
  A useful way to think about this came up the other day in an article by a free-lance book editor, Shawn Coyne. From his experience preparing manuscripts to be submitted to agents and publishers, he's learned to look for this essential quality in any story. That is "the storyís progressive complications: the escalating degrees of conflict that face the protagonist."
  He illustrates this nicely in the negative by using an all-too-common summary of the all-too-tedious stories in every publisher's slush pile. These stories go nowhere, in a couple meanings of the phrase.
  If things don't keep getting more and more challenging for our hero -- something like Hamlet's "sea of troubles" -- a tale won't have much appeal. Coyne also looks for what he calls a "point of no return" where the central character's decision changes everything, forever.
  It's great advice for writers. I found this, by the way, thanks to the very helpful online conversations among members of the Editorial Freelancers' Association, an international alliance of written-word professionals.
Boiling Frogs: Editor Shawn Coyne on structuring a compelling story "Boiling Frogs:" An editor's thoughts
on how not to write a compelling story

Feb. 22, 2014
Words of wisdom about publishing

  I just spent a fascinated day conferring, conversing, and otherwise hob-nobbing with my brother (and sister) wizards in the writing and publishing game. The event was the "Book 'Em North Carolina" conference, held at Robeson Community College in the nearby community of Lumberton. (This is the real Lumberton, on I-95 just south of Fayetteville, not the fictional town where David Lynch set his bizarre, unforgettable Blue Velvet. That movie was actually filmed right here in Wilmington ... but that's a tangent of a different color.)
  Anyway, this conference and book fair brought together 75 or so authors and publishers, and included a bunch of informative and entertaining panels and speakers. The name "Book 'Em," by the way, is a play on cop talk. (Remember "Book 'em, Dano" from Hawaii Five-0?) This event isn't just about to helping writers sell their books and improve their work. It's sponsored by police who believe encouraging kids to read helps them avoid the temptations of crime, gangs and other self-destructive behavior.
  I heard a lot of good advice, and some pretty good yarns, but what struck me as most notable included:
About marketing
  Authors have to do the work -- "get their hands dirty" -- to market their books, whether they're handled by a traditional publisher or self-published. The author's "platform," consisting of website, blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, etc., is vital for helping to build an audience, and to develop the author's "brand." Nobody loves your book like you do, and nobody will do a better job of selling it than you do.
  "The best marketing is a really good book." And one of the differences between "promising" and "really good" is a really good editor.
  "Perseverance sometimes trumps talent" in selling your book, whether it's to an agent, or to a publisher, or to readers once it hits the market.
  Promotion isn't just about one book. A successful author is one who has figured out how to promote "who you are as a writer," and established a personal brand.
About submitting your book to publishers
  A professional approach is crucial when submitting a query. That includes making 100 percent sure that every detail of your query letter is perfect. In one publisher's words, "Editing is key. Make sure you're sending a clean query letter."
About structuring a compelling story
  The beginning of a novel is not the place for back story. "It should start with narrative. It should start right now." A writer whose story grabs and holds readers understands how to weave the back story into the narrative once it's gotten under way. Otherwise, "It's like saying to the reader, 'This isn't where the story starts, but please bear with me.' " Readers don't want to bear with you. They want to get right to it.
About learning from editing
  "You've got to kill your old writing style and work on becoming a better writer."

  Here's some info about the event and its sponsors:

Book 'Em North Carolina is an annual book fair Book 'Em North Carolina
www.bookemnc.org


And this is my selective list of some of the publishers and authors who attended this year:

GO to see links to publishers and authors.


Jan. 31, 2014
It ain't style, it's typography.

  Friends and colleagues who care about such things have been exchanging comments about a peculiarity that bugs editors. I'm talking about the "rule" some of us learned, ages ago, that you must hit the space bar twice after ending a sentence. (I don't mean ordering a second drink at the Mos Eisley cantina after you get out of prison. That's a different kind of space bar, and a different kind of sentence.)
  No, this is about the mundane matter of whether to treat the space between sentences (or after certain types of punctuation) differently from a plain old between-words space. This debate sure sets off heated reactions from traditionalists who were taught to do this, even though hardly any of them can say why.

  My fellow wizards in the Editorial Freelancers' Association use an online forum to conduct lively discussions on all manner of editing and writing topics, and this is part of a comment one colleague posted:
  It has been my policy to allow the author to choose which way he or she likes best. If the author has a style he uses more often, then that is the one I adhere to. If the author switches incessantly between the two, then I choose one space and enforce that.
  Should I be insisting on one space? I am willing to face off with writers who remember being told in English class that you must always use two, but I want to choose my battles wisely. If the author decides to go through traditional publishing, is this issue going to affect her chances of being published?

  So, having honestly earned my Mr. Know-it-all reputation, and having unsolicited opinions galore, I had to weigh in:

About the one-space/two-space dilemma:
  That old rule about two spaces after a sentence lost its relevance when typewriters disappeared, and it never applied to typeset copy in any case. (For what itís worth, I learned the two-space rule in a typing class. As in, typing on manual typewriters. No English teacher ever mentioned it, nor did it ever come up in journalism school.)
  Even in the pre-digital world of Linotype machines, spacing between words and between sentences was controlled by a "spaceband," a mechanical device that would expand or contract to ensure every line was fully justified. When mainframe text-editing systems like Atex (of blessed memory) and its PC spinoff XyWrite appeared, they used H&J (hyphenation & justification) systems that did the same thing: adjusting spaces -- single spaces -- as needed to fill out lines in columns of text.
  The same principle is true with modern software, whether itís Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, or their various off-brand competitors: the keyboardís spacebar generates a variable space that will automatically adjust itself to fit whatever column format itís placed in. Double spaces confuse the H&J protocols, which makes text look ragged and words break in peculiar ways.
  Bottom line: Sooner or later, this has to be cleaned up, unless a misinformed author self-publishes, in which case the text will look like crap (that's the technical term for this problem.) If itís not fixed by the editor, then it will have to be somebody at the publishing house. Whether publishers are put off by this, I canít say, but as an editor I feel obligated to help my authors understand this is primarily a technological issue, not really a matter of style. And so it has ever been!

  A postscript: Shortly after this appeared, a colleague posted this response. She started off commenting on another thread, concerning the value of the EFA's dues. Here's the part that tickled me:
  Thatís just the money. The fact that my partner is now going to train himself to use one space between sentences because of the conversation we had yesterday is absolutely priceless. Do you have any idea how long I have been trying to convince him that it is the way things are done? (Thank you to everyone who participated in that conversation yesterday, and a special thank you to John Meyer! Your email was the one that convinced him!)
Veronica Tuggle is a freelance editor in Missouri Veronica Tuggle
Free-lance editor
vtuggle.wordpress.com


  One last thought on this subject: This link goes to an entertaining piece that a friend posted on Facebook. It makes the same point from a slightly different perspective.

A posting from 'Slate' via 'Business Insider' Why you should never, ever put two spaces after a period
By Farhad Manjoo, Slate.com
via www.businessinsider.com/



Dec. 7, 2013
Life imitates art, Part II. (Same old story!)

  The column linked here could be describing my own hugely entertaining and time-wasting adventures through the surreal, Kafka-esque world of HealthCare.gov. I can't imagine how much madder I'd be if I didn't think the Affordable Care Act is badly needed, and almost essential for my family's health and solvency. Memo to everybody connected with this fiasco: The first commandment of politics should be "Don't piss off your friends."

Michael Smerconish, columnist for 'The Philadelphia Inquirer.' My nightmare on the Obamacare Exchange
By Michael Smerconish, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Originally published Dec. 3, 2013.
I'm in health-care purgatory. Since sunrise on the day of the launch, Oct. 1, I've attempted to shop for health insurance at healthcare.gov. Almost eight weeks later, I still haven't been successful in accessing quotes online for insurance.

  A good friend, who's a sincere, dedicated Democrat, suggested that 1) my state should have set up its own exchange, and 2) I should just "pick up the phone and enroll." That required further comment.

  I'm as much in favor of this reform as anyone. But get serious. "Pick up the phone and enroll?" Wait on hold for 20-plus minutes just to talk to a human being? Those I've spoken to (several times) have been clueless about the most basic questions. Read the Smerconish piece and take him seriously, because he describes, almost blow-for-blow, what my experience has been. NOTHING comes close to working as it should. This is disgraceful, and I'm infuriated at being played for a chump. I voted against the bozos who refused to set up an exchange in my state, but that doesn't excuse the incompetence of the federal people who have inflicted this travesty on us.

  My friend replied, with some comments about what a huge undertaking it was, and how no big online application ever rolls out smoothly (a debatable proposition.) He also suggested, again, that I "pick up the phone if you can't navigate the website." I couldn't let that go.

  I guess we're coming at this from fundamentally different points of view. I'm angry that the people I trusted to shepherd such a huge change in our country's economy and social network have so grotesquely mismanaged it. In those immortal words from "Animal House:" I fucked up. I trusted them.
  You, like me, believe in the Affordable Care Act, but you're trying to defend it against any and all criticism.
  But they had better listen when their friends and allies -- like me -- have been so badly mistreated, patronized, and ill served. This is way too important (and too essential for people like me and my family) to be papering over the bungling with excuses. And it remains a colossal bungle. Remember: I'm ON THEIR SIDE! And they have turned me into one of their harshest critics.
  One last thing: I will strenuously challenge the phrase "if you can't navigate the web site." That implies that the problem is mine. As a guy who has been designing websites, with some pretty complex database-programming features, for almost two decades, I can navigate pretty much anything online. And "pick up the phone" is somewhere between a bad joke and an insult. The phone system is as dysfunctional as the website. The people who answer the phone are overwhelmed, under-trained, and have to cope with the same badly integrated databases that keep crashing the website. As the columnist learned, after spending close to an hour on the phone with a clerk painstakingly entering his data, it had all vanished when he tried to resume the process.
  So my advice, to a fellow partisan, who supports the same causes I do: Face the reality that this is so badly broken and ill-managed as to be a betrayal of all the hopes you, and I, and millions of others, put into the promise of health-insurance reform.



Dec. 5, 2013
'Some guy' did 'something' 'some years ago.'

  In one of its "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween episodes, "The Simpsons" played off a classic "Twilight Zone" drama about a kid who uses his telepathic powers to terrorize his family and the entire community. One of the gags was that history books were being revised to conform with Bart's most recent test answers. Among those changes was that The Father of Our Country was now, officially, "Some guy."
  I thought of that when I noticed, two days running, these photo captions in my local daily print-media outlet.
  "Workers guide the statue of Gabriel James Boney into its home on the Confederate Memorial at Dock and Third streets after it was repaired some years ago." (Dec. 4, 2013.)
  "Loggerhead turtle eggs are placed in a relocated nest on Topsail Island some years ago." (Dec. 5, 2013.)
  I'll skip over the mis-identification of the statue in the first caption -- it's a generic Civil War soldier, not Mr. Boney, who was the gentleman who paid for the monument back in the 1920s. What bemused me was the notion that, in our new, streamlined, digital-age media world, we can dispense with "when" as one of the famed "Five W's."
  Times are tough for advertiser-supported publications, and if we're going to get rid of superfluous luxuries like beat coverage, editing, fact checking and self-respect, why not cut back to Four W's? Or Three?



Dec. 3, 2013
The news, untouched by human hands! (Or brains.)

  I'm not always this snarky, but seeing a wire-service story on my local paper's front page with virtually every punctuation mark stripped out compelled me to comment. For you young folks out there, the phrase "untouched by human hands" was once a common advertising boast by food manufacturers, to assure us their products were sanitary and had been packaged by machines. Now, I'm as big a fan of automation as anyone, but somebody always has to keep an eye on the machines, and what they're doing. At least until Skynet becomes self-aware.

  Dear Star-News: It's the holiday season, and time to think of those less fortunate, having to make do without life's essentials. Seeing in this morning's paper that you've gotten down to the bottom of your supply, let me donate some commas, apostrophes and quotation marks to replace those you'd apparently used up sometime yesterday.
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
  Let me know if you run out again; I get 'em wholesale.
  Meanwhile, for all my friends who want to contribute: Please put some cash into The Salvation Army USA's kettles, and consider offering help to the punctuation-challenged among us. The small things do make a difference!



Dec. 3, 2013
Missing the point of who does the paying

  A social-media friend posted a link to a "New York Times" story with this headline: "As Hospital Prices Soar, a Single Stitch costs $500. Hospital pricing is often convoluted, and hospital charges represent about a third of the total United States health care bill."
  As a loyal Republican, but too smart to blindly parrot every current GOP talking point, he made this comment: "Who cares what it costs? The gub'mint will pay for it all." I couldn't let that go unchallenged.

  Gub'mint, my ass. You want to know how much I pay every month toward my insurance premium? This stuff is coming directly out of my pocket, and of everybody else who's part of our crazy, dysfunctional health insurance system. Healthcare.gov started off as a bad joke, but it wasn't any more ridiculous than the train-wreck it's meant to start, slowly, cleaning up. The most efficient, least wasteful segment of the health insurance industry is Medicare: that wicked, socialistic, gub'mint-run single-payer threat to every good American's liberty.



Nov. 27, 2013
Is this efficient marketing, or just a stretch?

  This highly targeted, data-driven granular marketing business has officially gotten out of hand, based on the "related" ads I found while doing a bit of word-origin research.

Look at the 'targeted' ad Dictionary.com put on search results for the word 'tight-assed.'



Nov. 7, 2013
Getting elected isn't always enough

  This was a great day in history for Tippecanoe and Tyler, too! 1811: US forces led by William Henry Harrison defeated warriors from Tecumseh's confederacy in the battle of Tippecanoe, thus preparing the general to get elected president.
  Then in 1862, old Tippecanoe's vice president, John Tyler, got elected as a Confederate congressman. Much like Harrison, who died after just weeks in office, Tyler died before he could take his seat.



Nov. 5, 2013
Politics, poetry and partying

  I can't let Guy Fawkes Day pass unrecognized, especially since this beloved English holiday has some cool literature attached to it. (Besides being a great excuse to drink beer and burn stuff.) Thanks to my son Eli for calling my attention to this 17th-Century ditty:

Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes and his companions did the scheme contrive
to blow king and Parliament all up alive
Three-score barrels laid below
to prove old England's overthrow
but by God's providence him they did catch
with a dark lantern, lighting a match
A stick and a stake
for King James' sake
if you won't give me one I'll take two
the better for me and the worse for you
a rope, a rope to hang the Pope
a penn'orth of cheese to choke him
a pint of beer to wash it all down
and a jolly good fire to burn them
holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring
holloa, boys, holloa boys, God save the king



Oct. 13, 2013
Life imitates art: Surrealism online

  Ever feel like you're trapped in a story by Franz Kafka? I was able to create my account on the Healthcare.gov website on Friday, Oct. 4. Everything was ready to go with my insurance application except for the "verification" stage. Upload scans of your sensitive documents, I'm told, and as soon as the nice bureaucrats can look at them, I'll get an email telling me what to do next. Within minutes, an email arrives saying "You have a new message waiting for you in your Marketplace account."
  It only took another 9 days before I could log in, as the instructions said, to read the message. And, lo and behold, right there on my very own account page, it says I have a message!
  There's no way to actually see or read that message, but at least I know there is one, somewhere, floating free in cyberspace.
  The online chat support people were very nice, too. They said soothing words, but couldn't actually get anything done or help in any real way. But they were nice. So I tried the toll-free verification number, and after only five minutes on hold, a nice lady was on the phone ready to verify my identity! Except. I gotta have a special number. Where do I get that? Oh, you would have seen it when you chose your security questions. Which was 9 days ago. Do I remember seeing any mysterious 14-digit numbers at that stage? No, I was so glad the pull-down menus finally worked after days of showing up blank, that I didn't pay any attention to any secret numbers. Is there any way to recover that number now? No, not really, she says. Can I get my account verified without it? Nope. But the lady on the phone was very nice.
  Dear President Obama: This time it wasn't the Tea Party sabotaging things. Your own people screwed the pooch with this misbegotten system. It's a good thing I like the new health insurance system (at least in theory) or I might be really mad by now.

* * * * *
  After a number of friends weighed in to defend the Affordable Care Act and urge me to be patient, with useful perspective on why it's needed, I had to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in Congress.
  I know your point of view and I share it. Nobody wants this thing to work more than I do. But after my latest misadventures this morning, I have to declare that the system is a FUBAR. A cluster-f**k. The contractor who was hired to program this made bad decisions, starting with the underlying architecture of the site, that go way beyond just overloaded web servers and a shaky database. That stuff, I understand and can accept.
  But failure to adequately train the online and telephone "help" people is unconscionable. And the Kafkaesque, Catch-22 nature of what I'm going through is threatening to make the whole thing a bad joke. The only saving grace: The anti-"Obamacare" zealots are attracting so much negative attention to themselves that this mess looks good by comparison.



Oct. 8, 2013
Distorting history in a careless lead

  Well-known historical incidents tend to get reduced to shorthand, a natural way to simplify and make sense of complex events. Pearl Harbor. Munich. 9-11. Any reasonably well-informed person recognizes these phrases and can make some sense of them.
  But, alas, so often the shorthand version of an important event is wrong. By describing it incorrectly, we distort reality -- and how we think about reality.
  This morning I read a wire-story version of this obituary, originating at The Baltimore Sun. Here's the original version:

  Leonard J. Kerpelman, a civic iconoclast and legal gadfly who is best known for representing atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case that outlawed prayer in public schools, died Thursday at Sinai Hospital of complications from a tumor. The Mount Washington resident was 88.
  An interesting and important story. And grossly misleading, as far as its too-simple shorthand description of the O'Hair case is concerned. This lead is the latest careless misstatement of what the court actually decided about school prayer. Too much of the debate on that subject in the past half century has been distorted by this very oversimplification.
  This kind of dumbing down can actually be quite cleverly planned. It's a proven public-affairs strategy to control the terms of a debate. I don't think the Sun's obituary writer meant to keep skewing the issue, but whatever his motives, the result matters.
  Our civic life would be so much less poisonous if we could have serious debates about actual facts.
  For those who aren't clear on this point: What Abington Township v. Schempp actually outlawed was mandatory prayer sessions, ordered by the state. Ever since, we've been wasting a lot of time and mental effort arguing about the wrong issue.
  Four desks, four misses. This is a small example of how the death of newspaper copy desks is harming the body politic. It's the sort of garden-variety factual error that an inexperienced, or rushed, reporter will make. For a city editor, it could be a great teachable moment for a staff. Time was, when city editors were actually training their reporters, fixing an error once, at the source, kept it fixed. Any news medium's first line of defense should be the assigning desk in the newsroom, the Sun's in this case. Then the newspaper's copy desk would have another crack at it, and another chance to question the error.
  Step 3 comes when the story's picked up by the wire service. Once, you could expect the wire desk would at least take a good look at the lead before passing a story on. More than once I'd get a call to the city desk from our state AP bureau, questioning this or that detail on a story we'd sent up.
  And finally, when the wire story is being put on the local newspaper's page, the fourth missed opportunity, where editing might have saved the day. Yet no copy editor questioned or even recognized the factual issue.
  How could it be that not one of four (or more) editors handling this story made the catch? It might be ignorance, it might be apathy. But I can easily see how the desperate straits of the newspaper biz have stripped away at least two of those editing stages, and those remaining are too few, too demoralized and too poorly directed to protect us from such errors.



Oct. 5, 2013
Time Warner doesn't understand
what home-based business needs

  A mega media monopoly is proving that it can litter the marketplace with more "Catch-22s" than even the Army did in Joseph Heller's time. I'm talking about Time Warner Cable, which holds a monopoly franchise here in Wilmington, NC. On top of the TV programming they sell us, TWC has been our internet service provider ever since it rolled out its Road Runner service, back around the millenium.
  Here's the beef. We run a fairly high-tech, internet-based business from a home office. As do many thousands, if not millions, of other small entrepreneurs around the country. That has required us to buy TW's "Business Class" internet access, because of one technical feature they won't sell to garden-variety Road Runner customers. But in spite of the extra dollars we send to Time Warner every month, we actually get worse service than we did when we were just plain ol' Road Runner customers.
  The most recent (but by no means the only) example of how long-term customers get caught in a crack of Time Warner's making: Like a lot of families, we have competing priorities when it comes to what TV shows or movies we watch. So it seemed like a good idea to start using TW's TV-on-computer feature. Should be easy enough: All the data for all the channels comes down the coaxial line into the house already, as do all the Internet packets that zip back and forth between us, our web servers and the public.
  Signing up is easy, TW's website assures us. Just create an account, we'll verify it with a link sent by email, and you'll be all set.
  Except the signup process keeps throwing weird errors, claiming a 72-hour expiration window has closed after only a few seconds, and ominously warning that this really isn't a Road Runner issue, it needs to go to Business Class. And after wasting a good chunk of time with TW's online "chat" support people, they blow me off by sending me to a completely different tech-support universe.
  Deep sigh. OK, whatever. I'll play the game your way. Let's try Business Class's online support. But guess what! Although Road Runner offers 24-7 chat support for residential customers, as a premium, extra-bucks Business Class elite platinum preferred professional customer, I can't get online help except during bankers' hours. Dang. Silly me. Of course. It's BUSINESS, and what business these days would be trying to operate on weekends, or in the evening?
  Next best solution: Phone help! Which, alas, quickly devolves into the same depressing litany: "Well, sir, since you're a Business Class customer, you can't get residential cable service." "Oh, really?" sez I. "I've been a residential cable customer of Time Warner, and its corporate predecessors, since 1976." Repeat: 1976. That's 37 years as a customer. You know how customer loyalty is valued by a corporation like Time Warner? Nada. Negative nada.
  I know, I know, it's silly to try to use logic when dealing with tech support employees. But my last ditch plea went like this. "This is my home. My family watches channels we get from Time Warner, and pay for at the same rate every other household does. We want to have the same level of service. We didn't ask to be shifted to Business Class, but that was the only way we could get a static IP address." (Technical aside: necessary to manage some essential aspects of the websites that drive our business.) "Why are we getting less/worse service, despite paying you a premium?"
  Nobody will be surprised that the answer was, in essence, "That's your tough luck. I can't help you, nobody can help you, and we don't care."
  Is Time Warner Cable so profitable, and so immune to competition, that it's happy to continue alienating its most loyal customers? Is it so clueless that it can't understand how many of its customers combine residential and business services at the same address, and under the same account? Is it that oblivious to how changes in technology and the economy are affecting how millions of Americans live and work and use media?




Sept. 30, 2013
Why we need a daily newspaper
-- and how this one is failing us

  With information of every description streaming at us online, 24-seven, why should we be reading a daily newspaper anymore? It has to go beyond we old-fashioned print people's mere nostalgia for the smell of newsprint in the morning. A well-edited daily should be able to offer serious answers to that question.
  A local newsroom can still give readers something unique and important, if it tries. Of course, as in the case of Wilmington's Star-News, it can't try if it doesn't realize it needs to try.
  This morning's paper contains two big, gaping missed opportunities.
  First is a massive page-one wire-service package about how to use the brand-new "insurance marketplaces" created by the Affordable Care Act. This huge, sprawling program has innumerable wrinkles, many of them varying from state to state. So any national wire analysis will necessarily skim over or summarize those important differences.
  That's where a wide-awake copy desk will ... wait for it ... EDIT the wire copy to insert important local or state-level facts. In this morning's paper, that should have gone right about here:
  [Health insurance exchanges] ... might not be available to some consumers until later. ... Shoppers will have different buying experiences depending on who is running their exchanges -- the state, federal government or a combination of the two.
  An alert "content provider" -- they don't call 'em copy editors anymore, which is a good thing, since so little evidence of editing remains -- could have dropped in a line or two about North Carolina's exchange. For the record, North Carolina opted out, leaving the feds to run the exchange here. And according to Healthcare.gov, North Carolina's exchange will be up and running on schedule Oct. 1.
  Here's another obvious "local angle" opportunity:
  [Universal coverage] ... will happen either through an expanded government Medicaid program, which would cover costs for lower-income people, or by requiring people without coverage to buy it.
  ...
  The poor and near-poor will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that program.
  A newspaper that knew how to be indispensable to its readers would routinely edit wire copy to address important local situations. Such as to be sure we understand our state is one of those that chose NOT to expand Medicaid.
  I don't want to beat up too much on the copy desk people, who are underpaid and overworked and put in terrible hours. Where I do find fault is with those high-ranking newsroom managers who still do have "editor" in their titles. The buck stops with those who set and enforce professional standards -- or fail to do so.

  The other area where a good daily paper should beat its online competitors is staying on top of the sort of important local news that you can't find on any national online aggregator's site. For instance, the award of a contract for the long-awaited missing link in Wilmington's outer loop freeway, Interstate 140. Here's what this morning's paper had to say:
  Leland area officials are happy now that a $125 million contract has been awarded for the first of two phases to bring the Interstate 140 Wilmington Bypass over the Cape Fear River and into Brunswick County.
  The N.C. Department of Transportation recently contracted with Balfour Beatty, an international construction company, to build two bridges and an expanse of road that will stretch from New Hanover County to Cedar Hill Road in Brunswick County.
   GO to the rest of the story.
  A clued-in reader, trained to recognize "when" as one of the fabled "five Ws," will wonder: How recently?
  The answer: at a minimum, 10 days ago. A week and a half. Long enough for fresh bread to get stale and moldy. And for fresh news, too.
  As it turned out, an upstart online news site, Port City Daily, reported this on Sept. 20.
  A $125 million contract has landed for the construction of bridges over the Cape Fear River, to link Interstate 140 in New Hanover County to Cedar Hill Road in Brunswick County.
   GO to the rest of the story.
  In fairness, I should point out that this earlier piece also fudges the time element, saying only that a DOT source confirmed the award on Sept. 20, not when the contract was actually issued. So the Port City Daily reporter may well have been behind the curve, too. Just not as embarrassingly so as the Star-News.
  What many of us who cling to the newspaper habit still yearn for is the sort of systematic, routine daily beat coverage that keeps reporters, and their readers, out ahead of the story. If I was content to wait 10 days or more to get my breaking news, I could stick with my weekly and monthly magazine subscriptions and forget about the paper. But I still hold out faint hope that my local daily's smart, but ill-supervised, reporters might actually cultivate their sources, get to know them on a first-name basis, drop in at their offices on a systematic schedule to shoot the breeze and read their recent correspondence. And maybe, just maybe, gain enough real understanding of their beats that they routinely get the story in print before the official press release is issued.




Sept. 17, 2013
A not-so-epic spellcheck fail

  Relying on word-processing software without thinking is an epidemic among writers and editors. It's almost a cliche that a spellcheck program won't warn you that you're using the wrong word if it's correctly spelled. And yet our media are riddled with embarrassing errors like this recent headline:

THE SMART COLLECTOR | Tiffany Studios
Original products carry a special cache
  I'm not saying every copy editor should have studied French. (I didn't.) But it would be a good idea to make occasional use of a dictionary, either dead-trees version or digital.
  And enough reading should have naturally ingrained in a diligent professional some sense of how common foreign words are pronounced. That the terminal "e" in "cache" is silent. And that ending a French noun in "et" gives it an "ay" sound. This headline writer meant "cachet," which rhymes with "sashay," to mean the honorable status that clings to old Tiffany lamps. But we ended up with "cache," pronounced "cash," which means an accumulation of supplies or other valuables.
  So what if an editor doesn't have enough French (or Spanish, or German, or Latin, or Greek) under his belt to know these things? Easy: by knowing what you don't know (thanks for that insight, Don Rumsfeld) you know what you need to look up.




Sept. 12, 2013
Out-of-commission government reporting

  This heading isn't about disfunction in Congress, as easy as that would be to pontificate about. It's about imprecision in how local affairs get reported, both in print and on the air.
  It will be the second time local builder and community activist Rob Zapple makes a run for County Commission. Last year, the first-time Democratic candidate watched Republicans Woody White and Beth Dawson win first terms, while lone Democrat Jonathan Barfield held on to his seat.
   GO to the rest of the story.
  Our local public radio station does the best, most intelligent broadcast news in this corner of the Tar Heel state, but I still catch myself being annoyed at some avoidable glitches in its reporting.
  A useful starting point about accuracy in reporting is to get names right. The veteran newspaperman who taught my first, 101-level reporting class back in J-school had an ironclad rule. No matter how good the story was otherwise, he'd give an "automatic F" if any person's name was spelled wrong. I still have a yellowed piece of copy paper, with a nice cheery "A+" in blue ink -- crossed out and replaced with a fat red "F" -- because I'd neglected to look up John Updike's name.
  This example is about the name of an elected public board, not a human being. So what's the big deal? Ask yourself how much can we trust the subjective details of a story if we see the reporter gets the easy stuff wrong?
  Just so you'll know, whether you care or not: In North Carolina, there's no such thing as a "County Commission." Our state constitution calls for a "Board of County Commissioners." Well, gee, you say: That's a big, awkward waste of time and space to spell out. Sure enough, it is. But it's not wrong to shorten it, so any reference to our squabbling, 20-percent-crazy tax-setting panel can be simply "the county commissioners." Or, much of the time, just "the board."

  A related issue, which crops up so often it's hardly worth quoting specific examples, is about fuzzing who did what.
  Commissioners asked the county manager to research the matter and report at the next meeting.
  What I can't tell from this sentence: Was this an official request by the board, or a random query by a couple of its members? There's a big difference between "some commissioners" (and in my home-town board that can get very, very random indeed) and "the commissioners," meaning the board as a whole.
  Little words can mean a lot, and "the" in this context would tell us something very important. Kinda like a classic Doctor Who episode, in which our hero explains who he is.
  "A doctor?" a character asks him.
  "THE doctor," he replies. "You might say the definite article."
  Aside from demonstrating the BBC writers' high level of literacy and wit, this is a good way to remember how those insignificant little words can be crucial to clarity and accuracy.


 
Resources about editing, writing and literature
  My focus ranges from Wilmington and Southeastern North Carolina, where I've lived and worked most of my life, to the national marketplace for news, writing and publishing. This is a highly personalized list of links to websites, blogs and other resources I recommend for anyone interested in the written word.

LITERATURE

Ben Steelman's "Bookmarks" Blog
Ben Steelman   Wilmington's smartest, best-informed journalist, Ben Steelman has been writing about books -- and movies, the arts, history, and everything else under the sun -- for decades. A writer and editor for the Morning Star since 1977, Ben's vast knowledge and lively wit have made his writing an oasis in the otherwise arid pages of our local daily. (It changed its official name to Star-NEWS a few years back, just as the afore-mentioned "news" was being systematically purged from its pages.)
  In addition to his intelligent, content-rich commentary, Ben also keeps his readers posted on literary events throughout North Carolina.
  GO to Ben's Bookmarks blog.

Rita Dove's poetry page
Rita Dove   My favorite poet, Rita Dove has been honored for a lifetime body of writing that includes book-length poetic works, a novel, and the Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry, which she edited. Rita holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, won a Fullbright Scholarship in 1974 and Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and was Poet Laureate of the United States in 1993-95. She's been feted by presidents, starting with Richard Nixon (!), Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Besides prodigious native talent and great family support, she's the beneficiary of an outstanding public education in the Akron, Ohio public schools, Miami University and the University of Iowa.
  GO to Rita Dove's home page

GROUPS & EVENTS

WHQR Public Radio's "Prologue" book series
  Ben Steelman is host and moderator of this monthly event sponsored by Wilmington's public radio station, WHQR. (Those call letters were chosen well, standing for "Wilmington's High Quality Radio.") Normally held at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month, Prologue is also sponsored by the Star-News. Free and open to the public, Prologue features Ben talking with a North Carolina author, with plenty of time for audience questions and book signing. The venue is WHQR's M.C. Erny Gallery, on the third floor at 254 N. Front St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
  GO to Prologue schedule.

Wilmington Writers' Support Group
  Any writer is welcome to sit in with this informal group, which includes writers of every flavor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry -- even ad copy! -- are among participants' interest. Writers are encouraged to read short passages of 1,000 words or so. Members will offer comments. Meetings are the first and third Tuesdays of each month at the Barnes & Noble store in Mayfaire Towne Center, 850 Inspiration Drive, Wilmington, NC 28405.
  GO to group details.

Beach Author Network
  Writers in the Myrtle Beach, SC area are invited to attend this group's meetings, which are held the last Tuesday of each month. Venues vary; see the group's blog for details about meetings.
  GO to the group's blog.

ABOUT EDITING AND NEWS

"HeadsUp," Fred Vultee's editing blog
Fred Vultee   Fred Vultee is the most brilliant editor I've known in my news career. He's now an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit. Before hitting the academic track (master's and PhD from Mizzou) he upheld standards of truth, justice and clear thinking at such wildly divergent papers as The Charlotte Observer, Columbus Dispatch and Washington Times, after running the copy desk at Wilmington's Morning Star in the 1980s. I had the honor to work alongside Fred in those halcyon days, putting out pretty good newspapers and writing in-house proto-blogs: My "DoItRight" for the city desk reporting staff and Fred's "MrDesk" (motto: "He's not a real desk") on the copy desk.
  Professor Dr. Vultee has maintained the high standard he set then. He describes his current copy editing blog, "HeadsUp," thusly: "It looks at matters of interest to copy editors as well as issues like securitization, news routines, statistical competence and/or incompetence, ethics, and the creation of meaning." Yeah, well, okay. He is a college professor now, after all. Anyway, I recommend it.
  GO to "HeadsUp: The Blog"

EFA, Editorial Freelancers Association
  Editors, proofreaders, indexers and other self-employed specialists make up this national organization's membership. A member directory helps prospective clients find the right mix of specialty and expertise. A jobs board sends proposals to members, who also benefit from a lively online forum.
  GO to Editorial Freelancers

ACES, the American Copy Editors Society
  This national organization has evolved from being mostly about newspaper copy desks, as more and more editors are being laid off and working free-lance. As am I. It's an important resource for the editing profession, with news, sponsored events and educational opportunities.
  GO to ACES

ACADEMIC STUFF

UNCW's Creative Writing department
  A regional hotbed of literature, this independent branch (not part of the English Department) at UNC-Wilmington has gained a national reputation thanks to the many talented authors it's turned out, or hired on its faculty. Best known among those literary stars is Clyde Edgerton. The department's three-year Master of Fine Arts program is highly regarded in the literary world, and it helps to sponsor well-attended writing workshops each year. The Department's Publishing Laboratory addresses the editing and publishing steps needed to get a book from manuscript to bookstore. Its fledgling Lookout Books imprint has already gotten national attention. (See next item.)
  GO to UNCW Department of Creative Writing

Lookout Books
  A new imprint of UNCW's Publishing Lab, Lookout started in 2011 and has published several titles: Memoirs, short stories and poetry. Its mission statement: "Lookout pledges to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as overlooked gems by established writers. In a publishing landscape increasingly indifferent to literary innovation, Lookout offers a haven for books that matter." In practice, that means soliciting work from the University's Ecotone literary magazine. (See next item.)
  GO to UNCW Department of Creative Writing

Literary journals: 'Chatauqua' and 'Ecotone'
  Two literary magazines from UNCW publish original work from both local and nationally known writers. I'll let their editors speak for themselves.
  Chautauqua, named for the Upstate New York resort that's become a synonym for continuing education in things cultural. Chautauqua wants work showing "a sense of inquiry into questions of personal, social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic importance, regardless of genre. ... Above all, the editors value work that is intensely personal, yet somehow implicitly comments on larger public concerns ó work that answers every reader's most urgent question: Why are you telling me this?"
  Ecotone gets its name from a term for a transition between two ecosystems. The journal says it "seeks to reimagine place. Each issue brings together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural. ... You wonít find the hushed tones and clichťs of much of so-called nature writing in our pages."
  GO to Chautauqua magazine.     GO to Ecotone magazine.

BOOKSTORES

Barnes & Noble
  It's the biggie. 'Nuff said. The Wilmington store, complete with coffee shop, is in Mayfaire on the east side of town. The Writers' Support Group meets there on alternating Tuesday evenings. 850 Inspiration Drive, Wilmington, NC 28405.
  GO to Barnes & Noble's Wilmington store.

McAlister and Solomon
  Used and rare books is the tagline this independent shop uses on its website. Tucked away in an old house in the venerable Winter Park neighborhood, they specialize "in nice copies of better books," which also encompasses an interesting assortment of local interest and privately published titles. 2204-1 Wrightsville Ave., Wilmington, NC 28403.
  GO to McAllister and Solomon.

Pomegranate Books
  Wilmington's largest independent bookstore, as Pomegranate describes itself, specializes in local & North Carolina authors and Wilmington history, in addition to an array of literature, children's books and lifestyle categories. It has "small, but well-curated and frequently changing used-books sections" and is host to author readings, writers' workshops and other events. Its "little white house with red shutters" is in Winter Park, not far from the UNCW campus. 4418 Park Ave., Wilmington, NC 28403.
  GO to Pomegranate Books.

Two Sisters Bookery
  A smallish downtown boutique that the successor to the original sisters operates in The Cotton Exchange, just a block from the Cape Fear River. Aiming in part at the tourist trade that frequents its neighborhood of Riverwalk, hotels and convention centers, Two Sisters is well-stocked with local-interest titles and work by Wilmington authors. 318 Nutt St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
  GO to Two Sisters Bookery.

Old Books on Front Street
  Just what it sounds like, this jam-packed warren is a browser's delight, stuffed with a weird, wonderful array of volumes in every conceivable genre, and a few I'd have to call inconceivable. For years its founder's one-man band, Old Books on Front survived a near-death experience (building threatening to collapse) before moving a couple of blocks and getting a new owner. The store has an in-house coffee shop and hosts book-related events. 249 N. Front St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
  GO to Old Books on Front.


NORTH CAROLINA PUBLISHERS

Black Mountain Press
  Based in Asheville, which along with Wilmington and Chapel Hill is one of North Carolina's three coolest cities, Black Mountain Press specializes in work by "emerging authors of literary poetry, novels and short stories." It's interested in promoting the best story telling, and encourages submissions by unknown, first-time authors. Unlike some publishers, it doesn't require that authors have agents. Works with a North Carolina setting or other regional connection are especially desired, according to publisher Carlos Steward. 109 Roberts St., Asheville, NC 28815
  GO to Black Mountain Press.

Comfort Publishing
  Producing both periodicals and books, this company accepts a variety of fiction and non-fiction, but not children's books. It's based in the small Piedmont city of Concord. 296 Church St. N., P.O. Box 5265, Concord, NC 28027
  GO to Comfort Publishing.

Second Wind Publishing
  Publishing several popular fiction genres, this independent press is based in the "Triad" region (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point) of North Carolina. It accepts adult and young-adult fiction, illustrated children's books, and a smattering of non-fiction titles, mostly with a regional focus. Its website sells both hard-copy and ebook editions of all its titles. 931-B S. Main St., P.O. Box 145, Kernersville, NC 27384
  GO to Second Wind Publishing.


ODDS AND ENDS

New Hanover County Library
  A temple to reading, with branches. After 30 years as a department store, this big brick building downtown was transformed into Wilmington's new main library. What were once the store's display windows now help flood the reading room with natural light. The library has convenient suburban branches, in the Landfall/Mayfaire area, Monkey Junction and Carolina Beach. Beyond being a repository for books and other sorts of media, the library conducts literary events and through its "friends" group holds a great used-book sale every year.   Main: 201 Chestnut St., Wilmington, NC 28401.
  Northeast (Landfall/Mayfaire): 1241 Military Cutoff Road, Wilmington, NC 28405.
  Myrtle Grove (Monkey Junction): 5155 S. College Road, Wilmington, NC 28412.
  Carolina Beach: 300 Cape Fear Blvd., Carolina Beach, NC 28428.
  GO to the New Hanover County Library.

Cape Fear Literacy Council
  Reading is essential to success in today's world, and the dedicated volunteer tutors of this dynamic organization have helped hundreds of people overcome the poverty and isolation that come with illiteracy. The Council's annual spelling bee is a major fund-raiser, and it also sponsors author readings and other literacy-related events. 1012 South 17th Street.
  GO to Cape Fear Literacy Council.

Book 'Em North Carolina
  A partnership between authors and police, The Book 'Em Foundation was founded by suspense writer p.m.terrell and Waynesboro, VA Police Officer Mark Kearney. Its mission is to raise public awareness of the correlation between high illiteracy rates and high crime rates. The annual North Carolina writers' conference and book fair assembles 75 or so authors under one roof to talk about writing and publishing, and to sell their books. A portion of the proceeds goes to the host community, Robeson County and Lumberton, NC, for increasing literacy and reducing crime.
  GO to Book 'Em North Carolina.



Site last updated Tuesday, December 12, 2017      Copyright 2017, Cape Fear Images, Inc.