Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Look, Ma—No Copy Editors!

Here's the opening paragraph of a post Monday by an Iraqi blogger at Iraq the Model. It flouts rules of punctuation, hyphenation, syntax, and consistency (and is a run-on sentence), but it's perfectly clear:

We woke up this morning to the sounds of many explosions in Baghdad and since we are familiar with those sounds we recognized that these were no doubt mortar shelling but not like the usual which is one or two rounds fired by some terrorists in a hit and run manner; this time fire was exchanged between two or more groups and lasted for more than an hour.

Not a copy editor in sight, but it's still great read, and as far as I know there have been no complaints about its use of language from the blog's many readers. Yet if this sentence appeared in, say, an article in the New York Times, there would be hundreds of outraged emails, and endless discussions at Romenesko would ensue. Why the divergent reactions?

On a superficial level, it's obvious. We know what professionally edited prose looks like, and we know this ain't it, so it would be shocking to find something like this in the Times (or in any mainstream publication), and readers would wonder just what had gone wrong.

Yet the passage communicates very effectively. I'm sure I could find a number of sentences in today's Times that would require more effort to understand. Granted, we do make allowances when we know that someone is not writing in their native language, or even when we know someone isn't a professional writer. But look how easy it is to make those allowances--why do we refuse to do that when reading "professional" prose? (I'm not saying we should--just wondering.)

This leads me to the big question here: Blogs (and other less meticulously edited media) represent an increasing portion of our news diet, and readers are becoming increasingly accustomed to reading prose like this in rapid alternation with highly edited prose. Should copy editors be worried that people will start expecting less polish from their prose?

Then there is the meta level: The main goal of copy editing, to my mind, is to enhance the clarity and effectiveness of communication. Yet here we have a passage that is clear and communicates effectively and yet is also clearly devoid of copy editing. Now, if this sentence appeared in a professional publication it would require a substantial amount of work. If the value added by that work is not strictly about clarity or communication, then what is it about? (I'm not suggesting there aren't any other legitimate values; I'm just interested in what people think they are.)



At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Brett said...

In what way is it a run-on sentence?

At 2:38 PM, Blogger TootsNYC said...

If the value added by that work is not strictly about clarity or communication, then what is it about?

Eyes-glazing-over prevention, maybe. As a reader, I like to "breathe" now and then. Breaking up sentences, introducing commas to delineate clauses--these all make it easier for a reader to absorb the meaning--they're not spendign energy creating linkages between phrases, etc.

(of course, my being a coyp editor may make prose like this harder to parse, because I'm fighting against the expectations created by my profession; someone w/o my experience learning all those "rules" might not be distracted)

Some of it (in professional publications) *is* about "polish"--we will be viewed as being more authoritative on EVERY level if we produce


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