Editor as Cowhand: Rounding Up the Wild West of Journalistic House Style

When a freelance journalist completes an article and passes it on for copyediting, the reluctance can be palpable. Writers pour their heart and soul into their work, and freelancers submitting work for periodical publication are no different. Placing one’s precious composition into the hands of another requires a delicate, tactful dialogue.

Every newspaper and magazine has a dedicated house style, often an amalgamation of Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, and preferences determined by in-house staff. From a copyeditor’s perspective, in-box article submissions can carry a vibe akin to the Wild West, with authors throwing around rambunctious punctuation all willy-nilly: random ellipses with ambiguous intent, dashes dropped seemingly at random, and the mother of all punctuation faux pas, the exclamation point! What’s a periodical copyeditor to do?

Just as in any professional relationship, one key to success is communication. In the venue of the periodical, numbers of contributing writers might amount to dozens or hundreds. This is where contact lists, trends, and communication interface. When observable trends in malformed writing occur, copyeditors keep notes of recurring errors and play them back for the infringing writers with clearly articulated examples of correct and incorrect usage. Doing so without placing blame or judgment, and without pointing fingers to specific names or egos, can alleviate formatting errors happening repetitively and streamline efficiency in an organization’s ability to publish fast-breaking items. Effective editors communicate clearly and often.

Additionally, knowledge is power. There is no benefit to a copyeditor hoarding information or maintaining a false sense of authority by withholding style preferences from contributors. Editors who share house style manuals with their writers and incrementally check in for reiteration of key stylistic nuances diminish the necessity of nitpicking punctuation placement and allow greater opportunity for organizational editing. Well-formatted stories afford the ability to restructure the ideas contained therein.

Another important technique is the side-by-side collaborative edit. In the digital age we often exist and interact virtually, but personal interaction still reaps great rewards. The ability to spend fifteen minutes in conversation over a writer’s work can unlock doors to clarity and eliminate pesky errors from weaseling their way into published work. It’s a given that meeting in person isn’t always possible, especially when writers might submit to magazine offices on opposite coasts. However, often when writers see their work combed through with fine attention to detail for the first time, they approach their own final read-throughs with increased reverence and attention to detail.

Communicating, sharing information, and collaborating: these three aspects of copyediting periodical writing can help round up the wilderness of contributing authors and nurture an efficient process for moving journalistic articles from ethereal ideas into publication faster and with better form. When writers and editors work together in uniformity and keep the common end-goal in mind, everyone benefits. When relationships of trust and open dialogue are established, all parties involved can reach their full potential and produce crisp, clear copy.