Saturday, July 24, 2010

Alliteration Shmalliteration

Today I read a headline online that said "Ships steam to safety as storm guns for Gulf" (this was later changed to " storm enters Gulf"). I wonder if the copy editor even gave a thought to the percentage of the thousand or so boats and various other vessels out there battling the giant oil spill that are powered by steam. No doubt zero. Which no doubt would bring the copy editor's save-get response: poetic license.

The other day I saw a job listing -- although I've been unemployed too long for even the Podunk Press to take a chance on a dinosaur such as moi, I still peruse the journalismjobs bulletin board if for no other reason than to see which papers I applied to a year ago and never heard from have relisted the copy editor/page designer job -- and was struck by a job description. The paper is looking to hire a copy editor who knows the difference between effect and affect. You'd think I'd think "Good luck!" but that's not what I thought. I thought, "You really should be looking for a copy editor who knows the difference between mull and consider. Or between assail and criticize. I used to work with a copy editor who put "assail" in every headline he could, so that he could pretend he was working for the New York Times.

I've been guilty of writing headlines that say things like "So and so mulls retirement" or "North Korea weighs dropping nuclear bomb on U.S. carrier." And I won't even blame it on the fact that copy editors, like baseball players, can get in a slump. I wrote headlines like that because that's the way you did things, and many, I dare say most, still do. But one day -- actually, the headlines in general were so bad at my former employer that they brought in a headline consultant to give a couple of seminars, and that's what opened my eyes to what I already instinctively knew -- I realized that it's more important for every word in a headline to be accurate, rather than just to be an "action verb" for the sake of having an action verb: mulls, weighs, stirs, you name it. Notice how all of those are relatively short words, that's why they're so popular. But you stir a pot, you don't stir emotions. "Oh my god, you've stirred my emotion!"

Funny thing is, I wasn't the only person who attended that seminar. A couple of other copy editors got the point, but the majority were back making the same mistakes -- well, they're not really mistakes in the sense of typographical errors, they're just dull conventions, but to me they're mistakes -- within days.

But I ramble. So I think I'll say "thanks for reading," and get in my car and steam on over to the diner and get some breakfast.

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