Chapter 13
Editing and Headline Writing

Chapter 13 - Editing and Headline Writing

Good copyediting is indispensible to any publication, and good copyeditors are extremely valuable people to have around. They can lift the quality of the publication in ways that no other journalists can match.

Mastery of the language -- from the rules of grammar and punctuation to the nuances of meaning -- is the basic skill necessary for good copyediting and headline writing. Copyediting is more than just fixing the mistakes in a story, however. A copyeditor must have the courage to decide when a story is incorrect or when it has the wrong emphasis, and he or she must take on the responsibility of putting it right.

Writing headlines is one of the most difficult tasks a journalists takes on. Headlines use only a few words, but those words must be accurate and must give the reader a sense of the story and specific information about it. In addition, the headline writer has to produce headlines under deadline pressure. The headline writer has to think precisely and creatively at the same time. Writing a good headline can be as difficult an intellectual problem as solving a complicated math problem.

Copyediting and headline writing may not at first seem like exciting or interesting jobs for the journalist, but they carry great prestige within the profession. Many people find them to be interesting and challenging, and people who are good copyeditors are never lacking for opportunities to work.

Study questions
  • What is the chief goal of the copyeditor?

  • What particular items should a copyeditor check when trying to make a piece of writing accurate?

  • Nora Shoptaw's essay on "A Day in the Life of a Copy Editor" (page 225) talks about some of her experiences as an editor. What are some of the larger lessons to be learned from this essay?

  • What is meant by a story's "inner logic"?

  • What are some of the steps an editor should take to achieve clarity in writing?

  • What is the difference between a direct quotation and an indirect quotation? What is another word for an indirect quotation?

  • What are the characteristics of a good headline?

  • Why are good headlines important to a publication or a web site?

  • Why are good headlines harder to write than good paragraphs?

Chapter notes

Exercises. Several of the exercises in this chapter are availabe at this site. They can be downloaded by the instructor and duplicated for classroom use.
• Exercise 13.1 Wordiness
• Exercise 13.2 Wordiness
• Exercise 13.3 Wordiness
• Exercise 13.4 Redundancies
• Exercise 13.5 Errors, style and clarity
• Exercise 13.6 AP style
• Exercise 13.7 AP style
• Exercise 13.8 Editing a longer story

Copyediting quizzes. A number of web sites offer some copyediting quizzes that are easy to access for those with Internet connections. Some of the links to those are below. Among them is a whole battery of quizzes put together on the American Copyeditors Society (, which asks about a variety of topics such as history, geography and current events. The point is that good copyeditors need to know a lot about many different topics if they are going to be able to spot errors and inconsistencies and if they are going to be able to judge the context of the copy they read.

A key to good editing. One of the most difficult things to teach beginning editing students is, somewhat oddly, attitude. While no one should be cocky or uncivil, a good copyeditor must have the confidence not only to spot errors but also to change the copy to make it better. That is reasonably easy to do when they are dealing with technical matters – spelling, grammar, style rules, etc. – where the rules are explicit. It is much more difficult when changing copy calls upon editors to use their judgment and to have confidence in that judgment. An editor must consider any piece of copy his or her own – must “take possession” of it, in the modern phrase. A good editor does not hesitate to see what it wrong, recognize how it should be changed and then change it.

Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction exam. The author, when he taught at the University of Alabama, would give a 100-question grammar, spelling, punctuation and diction exam to beginning writing students. The test was a difficult one, but students had to make at least a 75 on the exam to pass the beginning writing course offered by the College of Communication and Information Sciences. That exam is not available on this web site, but the study guide developed for it is. This is an excellent primer on the basic grammar and spelling rules and concepts that a student should know.

Grammar exercises. This section contains a number of exercises to help students learn the basics of grammar. They are not designed for testing but rather as tutorials. (Students: Follow the directions of your instructor in completing these exercises.)

• Commas exercise 01
• Commas exercise 02
• Grammar problems exercise 01
• Grammar problems exercise 02
• Subject-verb agreement exercise 01
• Subject-verb agreement exercise 02
• Subject-verb agreement exercise 03
• Subject-verb agreement exercise 04
• Word choice exercise 01
• Word choice exercise 02

The Complete Editor. The author of Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How is the co-author of The Complete Editor (with Ed Mullins of the University of Alabama). This is a widely-used editing textbook that takes on many editing issues in depth and offers an array of exercises for classroom use. A second edition of The Complete Editor will be published by Allyn and Bacon in 2005.

Key concepts and terms

• Good copyediting skills are a must for any editor.

Headlines – a few words used to describe a story or articles; they appear in larger type than the body of the story, and they are what the reader uses to decide whether or not to read the story.

• Copyediting means that editors should do more than fix the technical errors (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style, etc.); instead, they should work to improve the writing.

• Copyeditors should always check the math in a story and make sure the numbers add up.

• Good copyediting requires that editors have a wide range of knowledge and that they be skilled in finding information efficiently.

Jargon – specialized language (words and phrases) used by a particular group but not understood by a general audience.

• In the use of language, the simpler the better; simple words and phrases are more readily understandable, efficient and memorable.

Redundancy – an expression that uses more words than necessary; for example, Easter Sunday or old adage.

• Headline writing takes special skill and efficiency in using the language.

Related web
sites for
Chapter 13

American Society of Newspaper Editors

Poynter's online editing resources

Poynter's online writing and editing tipsheets

American Copyeditors Society

The Slot

Section I | 1: News and Society  |  2: Culture of Journalism  |  3: Becoming a Journalist
Section II  |  4: Newspapers  |  5: Magazines  |  6: Television and Radio  |  7: News Web Sites
Section III  |  8: Reporters  |  9: Reporting  |  10: Writing news and features  |  11: Style  | 
12: Editors13: Editing and headline writing  |  14: Visual Journalists  |
  15: Graphics Journalism  |  16: Photojournalism  |  17: Publication Design  |
  18: Broadcasters  |  19: Writing for Broadcast
Section IV  |  20: Beginnings of Journalism  |  21: Journalism Comes of Age  | 
22: New Realities, New Journalism  |   23: 20th Century and Beyond
Section V  |  24: Law and the Journalist  |  25: Ethical Practices  |   26: Present and Future
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