Copy editing Q&A with Matthew Crowley

By students in MC3383.010

Matthew Crowley, a copy editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s universal copydesk, was guest speaker during Mass Comm Week for students in Elizabeth Clark’s online class, MC3383 (Editing for Clear Communication).

Crowley, a member of the American Copy Editors Society, has spent 24 years in print journalism at newspapers in Syracuse, Cortland and Glens Falls, N.Y.; and in Las Vegas. He has spent the last 14 years as a copy editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s business and universal desks.

Many of the headlines he has written have gained national recognition in contests sponsored by the American Copy Editors Society, the Society for Features Journalism, and the Nevada Press Association.

Student contributors to this Q&A are Kara Thayer, Petronilo Garza, Lauren Bolado, Megan Parrish, Stephanie Lara, Kelly Marie Grazdan, Caroline Wharton, Kayla Poetschke, Amanda Howell, Andrew Osegi and Alaina Curry.

Q. What made you decide to become a copy editor? Was there a certain inspiration behind it?

A. I started out as a reporter out of journalism school at Syracuse and moved around the desks, from sports to features and eventually to business as my career progressed. I became a copy editor 14 years ago because it’s where the opportunity was: I was working at a weekly at the time and the opening on the big daily where I wanted to be was on the desk. I’d already done some copy editing as ancillary duty in prior jobs and I knew I could do it. And being a reporter was great preparation because I knew how stories got put together and I knew what to report.

Q. How do you keep your focus looking for mistakes without all the words just feeling like they are mashed together?

A. Good question. I have tricks to keep focused. I always try to read every story at least three times, and I use all the tools at my disposal. For example, after I’ve read the story in our page design system and fit the layout, I paste the text into Microsoft Word and read it again, running the spell checker again and the grammar checker, just to try to see everything anew. I’ve also been known to do one read of the story from the bottom, going from the last paragraph to the first. One thing that helps me is that because I’m on universal desk, the kinds of stories I read are different. I read some arts here, some civic news there, some business, some columns; all the shifts keep me sharp. And I make sure to get up every so often to walk around the office or get a drink of water to clear my head.

English, in general, has a lot of rules. AP style has even more! Do you remember all the rules or do you have to look things up often? Is there a certain procedure you follow to make sure everything follows the AP guidelines?
A. Through years of experience, I’ve memorized some things in the stylebook, like which American cities are “AP cities” and stand alone without the states’ name. Nevertheless, if I have the slightest doubt, which is almost all the time, I look things up. Sometimes, by looking one thing up, I’ll notice something on the same page that I’ll mentally file away for later; that way, I’ll remember it’s a question area and needs looking up. There are all kinds of ways to get the AP data now beyond the book, such as a mobile app for smartphones and an online version of the book. There’s also now a special plug-in for Microsoft Word that will check your document to see if it matches AP style.

It probably seals my geek bona fides, but I’ve been known to read the stylebook every so often just to try to reinforce my knowledge. And a couple of Florida-based professors have created immensely useful AP style drills at I use them as batting practice; I take the “newsroom all” quiz, which covers all the units, and take them until I get two perfect scores in a row.

Q. What makes a story stand out from the rest when you are editing or judging a contest?

A. I don’t judge a lot of writing contests, although I do judge headline contests. When I’m looking at stories, I’m looking for many things, but first is technical aplomb. That is, if the person uses strong verbs and short sentences and avoids verbal weeds (“the fact that” comes to mind) then I can focus better on the story the person is telling; that is, the static is gone.

Q. I am usually quick to share the “what not to do” stories from my career with younger employees to prevent them from making the same mistakes I did. Could you provide any helpful hints or information for journalists/copy editors that you wish you would’ve known ahead of time?

A. When I started as a reporter, I got into it because I wanted to be a writer. Although writing is certainly part of the job, I would say it’s secondary to the reporting part of the job. I think former ACES President John McIntyre once said that reporters are mostly information gatherers who write, too. (That my not be completely what he said, but it’s the essence of what he said.) I didn’t know this. It probably wouldn’t have changed my decision to major in journalism or start in the field, but I would have liked to know this. I guess I would also say I didn’t know how much patience everything takes. In both reporting and editing, there’s a lot of retracing — rewriting drafts of stories, rereading stories for clarity and accuracy. The older I get, the easier it is to be patient in some ways. But it’s something I had to learn.

Q. Editing is quite a difficult task! There is so much responsibility on your hands. People are very sensitive and all have very different point of views. When writing a story, do you ever feel hesitant about the readers’ responses to your stories? I have the hardest time gauging my audience, how stories will be most effective, and how to make sure that my story is appropriate for a broad range of readers. Do you have any helpful hints about how I can make more stories effective and easily relatable to all of my audiences?

A. I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but I don’t much worry about reader response to articles I’m writing. I want them to be accurate, and well reported and well written, of course. Clarity is important, as is ease of understanding — but I think writing as well as you can (with a little help from your line editors and copydesk) will take care of both. (Two good, if rough, tests for reading ease are the grammar checker on Microsoft Word and Helen Sword’s excellent Writer’s Diet tool

I also want to make sure that the stories are fair; if A comments on B, I want to give B the chance to respond. I know in these polarized days that one side will cry bias if it thinks the other side is getting too much favor (
this is particularly true in politics and sports.) And I want them to be as complete as I can given the time I have to do them and the space I have to run them in — I want to allow for a breadth of voices and data with reporting

But I can’t do anything about reader reaction. I had an editor once tell me that stories are like clouds — people look at them and see what they want to see. And I’ve learned that no matter what you do, someone will be unhappy (and likely someone will be happy.)

It’s also impossible to know fully who “our readers” are. We may have demographic data, but we can hardly know what experience everyone brings to their reading of the paper. So if the story is accurate and clear and well researched, and it passes muster with your higher-ups, I think a story has fulfilled its mission that day. No one story can be the be-all and end-all. (Our space is limited besides.) We can, and will, follow up as stories develop.

Q. What inspired you to become a copy editor and what advice can you give to someone who is trying to break in to the journalism/ editing business?

A. I became a copy editor as a career step; I’d spent years as a reporter and wanted to try the next step. Also, a copy editing job opened at a paper I wanted to join, so I applied. I love words and writing and people’s stories, so all of these pay off in both reporting and editing. I’d advise up-and-coming journalists to know that it’s different than other jobs — the clock isn’t strict; stories can happen when they happen — your dinner reservations may get scrapped sometimes. There’s redoing involved: stories that you write need revising; stories you’re reading need rereading. And reporting is mostly about information gathering: finding sources, developing ideas, tracking data. The writing is joyful for me, but it’s the last step after reporting. And you’re often playing beat the clock — you want to get the story and be quick as you can. But for me, journalism is still thrilling. The news is more interesting than any story in movies or television. And feeling like we’re telling the readership something it needs to know or wants to know is tremendously powerful and satisfying.

What is some advice you can give to students who are unfamiliar with AP format and want to enhance their copy editing skills?

A. The best way to learn the stylebook is to read it and use it. One absolutely excellent place to practice is Gerald Grow and his colleagues in Florida have created an absolute treasure trove of exercises in grammar and AP style — all multiple choice which the reasoning for answers explained. I take them periodically to reinforce what I know and remind myself of what I may not have totally mastered. For grammar and usage practice, check out The Wall Street Journal’s monthly Style & Substance blog and The New York Times’ After Deadline blog

The more you train, the easier it’ll be.

Q. What are some important activities you do outside of work that help you stay creative and inspired? OR, do you feel setting aside time for yourself is necessary in a person’s career? Especially a career where you have to use creativity every day?

A. Great question. Yes, down time really matters. 

Outside of work, I try to get in as much art and culture and music and pleasure reading as I can. Yesterday, for example, I went to the Las Vegas Valley Book Festival to hear author Jennifer Egan speak (she wrote “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” a novel I’d read.) I wanted, basically, to hear how another writer writes. (Our methods are way different, but you can’t argue with her success and talent.)

I read as widely as I can — I love the New Yorker and New York magazines (I visited NYC regularly when I worked in the Albany area.) I listen widely, too — many podcasts: “Fresh Air” and “Car Talk” from NPR; “The Nutrition Diva” from Quick and Dirty tips; LA Theater Works plays; and, my guilty pleasure, baseball podcasts from ESPN, Baseball America and WEEI in Boston to hear about my Red Sox. I hop the dials on my satellite radio looking for music. (As I write this, I’m listening to the Rolling Stones’ excellent album “Exile on Main St. from (gasp!) 1972 … I’m dating myself here.) I love movies. (Saw “Safety not Guaranteed” last night.) And I love to cook and exercise (racquetball’s my favorite) and the hobbies are perfect complements: one puts calories on; the other takes them off. Walking or thinking or listening all help with creativity; I’ve had ideas for leads or headlines when I walk around the newspaper campus on my afternoon break or during my commute to work (as the Spoon lyric from “Finer Feelings” goes, “I was dreaming in the driver’s seat/When the right words just came to me.” At least that one’s from 2007.) 🙂

Creativity is essentially the ability to take an idea from Box A and connect it to an idea from Box B in a new way. And you build creativity by taking time to fill those boxes with diverse experiences away from work. So, to answer your question, yes, time for self is important no matter what career you choose.

Q. As a journalist who has been in the writing business for a while, how have you adjusted to this new, up-and-coming age of digital publishing and social media?

A. The Web is just a new delivery system for what we’d already been doing; we still have to report and research and write. The Web has changed the news cycle, though. Instead of having overnight to deliver a story for the next paper, now we deliver it online soon after it happens and follow up with the print presentation. The Web, and particularly search-engine optimization, mean that we now can have one headline in print (one of the wordplay or poetic kind that I love) and a straightforward one for Google’s bots. (Google doesn’t laugh; puns are lost on it.)

Social networks, particularly Twitter, I suppose, have become a fusion of the TV news crawl and the old wire service flash — a running commentary and news blast all in one. I think Twitter and Facebook have, in an odd way, changed the way we might hear about stories first. Twitter was where I learned that Whitney Houston had died and that Derek Jeter had broken his leg, for example (I was at the movies when the injury happened in that Detroit-Yankees American League Championship Series). As a side note, I think Twitter is excellent headline practice. You have to deliver your thoughts in a concise, clean way with a limited character count.

Q. What tips do you have for females in this industry? Do you feel it is harder for women to advance as copy editors?

A. There are many great examples in our American Copy Editors Society of excellent women copy editors who have gone onto become even more. Dierdre Edgar, for example, an ace copy editor, later helped manage copy editors at the Los Angeles Times and is now the paper’s readers representative. Teresa Schmedding of the Daily Herald in suburban C
hicago is now assistant managing editor of that paper (and is president of ACES). And Lisa McLendon, who spent years copy editing at the Wichita Eagle, is now Bremner Editing Center Coordinator at University of Kansas. At my paper in Las Vegas, women copy editors have risen to become deputy editor (my boss) and assistant features editor. So they can, and do advance. I should also say that I am not a woman, and this question might be better answered by someone who is. Teresa, I know, would answer your question. Her email address is available on the website. I would tell women getting into the business the same things I would tell men: learn the stylebook, read widely, practice your skills, strive for excellence, work hard.

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