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Cleaning copy: 29 or so pitfalls to avoid

I put this two-page list of tips together for a small newspaper chain recently. It’s available as a PDF on my Web site, I’m posting it here mainly in the interest of getting your feedback so I can touch it up. if y0u find it useful, feel free to download it from the Web site.

Below is a list of four of the most common issues to hit the copy desk. What follows is a list of some of my Twitter tips (@EditorMark) that might be particularly useful to reporters.

1. Errors in math. Don’t ignore the common-sense advice drilled into our heads in high school: Check your work. I would put the error rate in number-intensive stories at about 20 percent. Reread your stories, pull out the numbers, and make sure they work together. Quick tip: For percentages, divide the part by the whole and multiply by 100. Also, remember extremes usually do not tell the reader what is typical. “Up to 70 percent” off at a store means some things are 70 percent off, most are not. Same goes for claims by politicians and other public officials.

2. Errors in parallel structure. Once you’ve put down a verb, everything that follows in a list must agree with that verb. The same holds true for bulleted lists. This is often forgotten, and so we get “plans to cut police positions, library hours, and to reduce spending on parks.” Read what you have written (and don’t be afraid to move your lips as you do so).

3. Misplaced and dangling modifiers. Don’t be afraid to rewrite or divide a sentence to avoid confusion over the intended object. “A Wisconsin man was reported stabbed by Beloit Police.” “Frozen solid, Bruce walked out onto the lake.” Read what you have written.

4. False continuums: The snowstorm brought everything from fender-benders to school closings. So those are the extremes? Where does the increase in sales of plastic shovels fit? Make a list if you must, but avoid the “everything from” construction unless you can actually fit all your items on a line.

Tweeted tips

“That” often is superfluous. But don’t omit it without carefully reading what’s left. Keep it in for clarity; omit if excessive.

Ships “founder,” meaning they take on water and sink. A sailor on the doomed ship might “flounder,” or thrash about trying to stay afloat.

For something to be “historic,” it must be important to history. If it just happened in the past, it’s “historical.”

Do not call charter schools “taxpayer-funded private schools.” Governance models vary, but all charter schools are public schools.

To “flout” is to mock or otherwise show disdain; to “flaunt” is to show off. “Flautist” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “flutist.”

AP says “mike,” not “mic.” OED has references to “mike” dating to 1920s, “mic” to 1960s.

Don’t say “margin” if you mean “ratio.” Ratio is the relationship between two numbers; margin is the difference: 2-1 ratio; 12-point margin.

If you feel bad, don’t say “badly” unless you have a poor sense of touch. It’s the same as with smelling bad or smelling badly.

It celebrates all mothers, but Mother’s Day keeps the apostrophe inside as a singular possessive, as does Father’s Day and New Year’s Day.

“Biweekly” means every two weeks. But for 150+ years, it also has been used to mean twice weekly. Avoid confusion and say what you mean.

You “lay” something. But, annoyingly, “lay” also is the past tense of “lie.” Lay an object down. Lie down. He lay down. (It was laid down.)

“Currently” usually adds nothing; use it rarely and thoughtfully for clarity. Never write the horribly verbose “at this point in time.”

Don’t call two quarters of GDP decline a “traditional” definition of “recession.” The recent convention often is rejected as simplistic.

To “clamor” is to make a lot of noise. To “clamber” is to awkwardly climb or move (probably from “clamb,” an old past tense of “climb”).

“Discrete” means distinct or separate (the island of Crete is a discrete part of Greece). “Discreet” means quietly careful or judicious.

“Defuse” means disable a bomb. It can be used figuratively: to defuse a tense situation. “Diffuse” as a verb means to spread out or scatter.

You can be both interested and “disinterested.” “Disinterested” means impartial. Don’t care? Then you are “uninterested.”

Avoid using “fumes” to mean “vapor.” Fumes usually are smelly or toxic vapors. Vapor is any diffused matter floating in air, such as steam.

Don’t fear “effect” as a verb. To “affect” is to influence; to “effect” is to bring about. “Effect” something and you can take the credit.

“Who” is the proper pronoun for the subject of a sentence. If your pronoun is not doing anything, use “whom.” “Who” does stuff to “whom.”

“Alright” is common, but it’s a nonstandard spelling of “all right,” which prevails in formal writing. Stick with two words, all right?

“Irregardless” is a nonsensical variant, formed by adding the negative prefix “ir'” to “regardless,” which already has a negative suffix.

There is no need to write the awkward “’til.” Till is a perfectly good word that means the same thing. “Until” is best for most writing.

One who “begs the question” is pretending that restating a question answers it. Consider “raises the question.”

“A while” is two words if it follows “in” or “for” — that’s when it acts as a noun. “Awhile” is an adverb.

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