« Don't be shy | Main | Ground Zero »

Be on the alert

A little while back, The Washington Post experienced some embarrassment when a draft of an article, including an editor’s queries, was accidentally posted on its website. I wasn’t inclined to remark on it because it might have looked like gloating, and besides, it was a purely mechanical mistake rather than a lapse in editorial judgment.

But one of my readers has sent a link to a commentary on the blunder, wondering what I have to say. It’s this: Since any text you ever create in a computer could potentially escape and be seen by a wider audience, be careful.

That goes particularly for e-mail. Don’t write it when you’re angry or drunk, and take particular care about the address. Have you ever absent-mindedly addressed a snarky message to the subject of that message? (Me, too. The person I sent it to has ignored a friend request on Facebook, more than twenty-five years later.) Or to a group instead of an individual recipient?

When you’re editing a text, you want to be direct but tactful, sometimes even deferential, about your comments and questions. And you want to make sure that you address essential points, economically, instead of marking up everything in sight and coming off like an obsessive noodge. You don’t know whom the writer might show it to.

And this: Master the damn technology. Microsoft Word, if that’s what your shop uses. Ours uses CCI and NewsGate, which were invented by Danes after they gave up pillaging seacoast towns and turned to writing software. The programs are difficult to learn and maddening to operate, but they give the inept user a power to do considerable damage. The typewriter is over. Stop hitting two spaces after a period and learn how to manipulate the machinery you’re using.

One other point, on a different subject, about being careful out there:

Derby Day approaches, and there is a danger that some of you, misled by the premature appearance of seersucker or of ladies wearing broad-brimmed hats, may think that the mint julep is some kind of genteel ladies’ drink.

I have given you the recipe for a proper mint julep. Use your power for good, not for evil. You and your party should sip it, not gulp it, and, as my colleague Rob Kasper advises, one to a customer should be plenty. Once a second round hits the medulla oblongata, you had better check your liability insurance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:15 PM | | Comments (22)


A good "rule of thumb" is to craft e-mail drafts in Microsoft Word, reread and revise, and then copy and paste the text into the body of your e-mail. (Or email, if you're an AP purist. Or zealot.)

As an aside, Prof. McIntyre, you should know I'm preparing my Derby Day bow tie. And by preparing, I mean ordering.

Some years ago, a copy editor at another Tribune paper made point-by-point comments within a restaurant review that called into question the review's accuracy. The review was published with the comments intact but unanswered. A clarification was published that named the copy editor and disavowed the questions.

Excellent advice, but as with much advice, it won't really be meaningful to someone until they make that mistake for themselves.* Mostly because people won't believe they'll make that error until they actually do.

(All in reference to the writing of emails and editing of copy. Got nothing to say about mint juleps. :-) )

* Good golly, would you LOOK at all those singular they's. And now an apostrophe for a plural!

A similar thing happened with one of my stories about eight years ago. The final version of the article was posted online, but it somehow included a note the editor had written after reading the first draft. The note wasn’t embarrassing or bad – it just said I should call another person and include some quotes from her in the piece, and I did. I think my mother was the first person to catch it. She called to ask what Kyle (the editor) meant, because the note didn’t make sense with that version of the story. We were able to get it changed pretty quickly, so it wasn’t a big deal – just a good lesson.

As for mint juleps: We served them at our wedding and warned friends about their potency, but that didn’t stop certain guests and family members from downing three and then acting like… someone who has consumed three mint juleps in a short period of time. Oh well. Everyone had good time.

And please, editors, no matter what, always resist the urge to insert jokes into the text for the other editors. At my first copyediting job, I was making some changes to a university-level independent study course manual that had been out for several months when I came across the sentence "Editors rule." in the middle of a paragraph. Obviously some previous editor with a sense of humor, too little restraint, and too much faith in our proofreaders had inserted it.

Prof. McI.,

Just curious, as a true-blue, born-and-bred Kentuckian, would you perchance have any wagers in the works on who might take the Derby race this coming Saturday?

Or, like me, are you kind of one of those fair-weather, not so zealous stakes race casual fans, who still gets an 'existential' emotional charge out of any of the Triple Crown runs to the finish line, but frankly don't follow the enterprise that closely over any given racing season, and wouldn't know the lineage, or track record of most of the major contenders?( Yes, indeedy, Jean Paul Satre was a follower of the 'sport of kings'. HA!)

Of course, the sports media, weeks prior to any given Triple Crown contest usually hype up a few critic's' pre-race favorites, helping to create that inevitable anticipatory buzz, that invariably reaches a palpable crescendo of excitement, and interest, as race day fast approaches.

Unfortunately this year, as the famed Derby draws nigh, we are not likely to see the likes of that Kentucky-foaled, super elegant, high-spirited wünder-horse Zenyatta, in this year's motley mix of major contenders.

This beautiful filly, just brimming w/ innate personality, and irresistible charm, has been thoroughly profiled a few times on CBS's "60 Minutes" (again, this past Sunday, in fact), and although never a Triple Crown winner, will likely go down in the annals of horse racing as one of the greatest, most winning, guttiest horses of the modern era. What other winning horse does a little jig both before, and after a race? I rest my case. HA!

Zenyatta, has been retired from the competitive racing grind for over a year now, and today resides on a bucolic breeding farm, (I believe in rural Kentucky), seemingly quite content w/ her second life chapter, hopefully giving birth to future handsome champions w/ at least a smidgen of her uniquely engaging character, fine temperament, intelligence, desire to win, and her gorgeous lines.

I understand the Derby is offering up a pretty balanced and competitive field this Saturday, yet no clear favorite stands out. Could be a long-shot, under-the-radar mount that takes that beautiful grand wreath of red roses in the esteemed winner's
circle at afternoon's end.

May the best horse (and jockey) win!

Oh, and Prof. McI., have a second mint julep on me, as you-and-yours watch those amazing, determined beasties rounding that last critical turn, charging w/ thundering hooves for home, and possible lasting racing glory.

They're OFF!


I have no truck with the track. Had my grandfather been the judge of the relative velocity of horses that he thought he was, I wouldn't have to work today.

With all imaginable friendship and respect, the person to whom you addressed the snarky message about said person might have needed more in the way of an apology than a friend request on Facebook. I trust you extended it at the time. Wouldn't want to think Murn didn't raise you right.

Prof. McI.,

Clearly, as you've stated, you are not a wagering man, at least on the ponies. Now as far as other traditional sports betting avenues, well we won't go down those risky roads.

Sounds like your gramps fancied himself as a bit of a precursor to the legendary Horse Whisperer (HA!), and pretty much convinced himself that he could quickly size up any steed's speed in the mere blink of an eye?

John, i get your drift re/ your writing, "I wouldn't have to work today" (or any other day, for that matter), implying that the immediate McIntyre household would be totally flush w/ fast-track betting winnings$$$$$$$$, if your eagle-eyed grand-dad really did have a penchant for picking the fastest horses out there. But, it was not to be.

Just think, instead of plying your daily 'paragraph factory' editing skills, you could be penning the next great American novel, or whisking around the globe, hither-thither-and yon, w/ your wife Kathleen, w/ nary as much as a care in the world.

But alas., old grand-pappy proved slightly delusional when it came to assessing "the relative velocity of horses", and you must remain content w/ your current lot in life, which frankly is a very decent, rich, seemingly fulfilling, and most commendable one.

Since we've been on a Derby roll, I'll be brief. If I may be so bold, do you wear Jockey (brand) shorts, or boxers. (Hmm........... maybe Jockeys come in both regular and boxer style. Never mind. HA!)

Oh those jockeys, and their silks. What a turn-on............. for the horses that is. HA!

I better skidaddle before I embarrass myself any further.

They're at the post......................... they're OFF!


I'm sorry… "noodge"?Also, I like that you too make the distiction between an obvious mechanical error or typo and more serious deviations from sound editorial judgment. When I was editing an online news site, I got sick of the "gotcha" comments because a contributor had dropped a letter.

Honestly, we love you.

Even if you tell bad jokes, talk Englishie to us and meow ceaselessly about spaces after periods.

CCI software was invented in the United States. It was only later purchased by a Danish company. Check your facts.

CCI was invented in the United States. It was only later purchased by a Danish publishing company. Check your facts.

Poor old Danes! Admittedly their dismal pastries cheese and bacon can't be countenanced, but at least if you would forgive them Newsgate I'm prepared to forgive them the Blood Eagle. You really don't want to wake up one morning to the sound of longboats' keels scrunching on the gravel.

Danes? No Scots? What's wrong with this picture?

The two-spaces thing confuses me enormously. Doesn't your fine Danish typesetting software decide on inter-sentence spacing for you? (I know Word doesn't but that's the least of its typographical crimes.)

OK. so I am one of those "lurkers" you wrote about in your post. My general rule is not comment unless I have something constructive to add or perhaps substract from the orignal post. Usually I don't. When I do, typically some else has already gotten there first.

However, the points you raise in this very post also speak to way I often refain.

I made the same remark last time this subject cropped up, Tim. Certainly this problem was solvable on at least one fine American typesetting system at least 25 years ago.

I suspect that the costs on legs that newspapers have rid themselves of include the people who knew how to manipulate editorial systems to get the best out of them.


As our astute Prof. McI. might articulate it, I have no 'truck' w/ either CCi, or Newsgate typesetting software, being a purely amateur, not-for-profit scribe. Some might claim 'amateurish, but at least I give it a go, eh/? HA!

Picky, my lad, you managed, (all be it in your signature little 'tongue-in-cheeky' manner), to enumerate the major traditional scrumptious Danish food items for which these hardy, and almost universally handsome Scandinavians have gained world renown. But you forgot one of their most delightful, most recent, (admittedly, non-food related), exports; namely the robust, super-talented, and drop-dead lovely, Caroline Wozniacki, the current number-one ranked woman tennis player on the planet.*

This statuesque, very blonde, blue-eyed, six-foot beauty, w/ traces of that old Nordic killer instinct on the courts (sans the bloody/ gory bits HA!), has equally charmed and amazed the entire tennis world w/ her powerful court dominance and tactical elan, where the likes of the super-talented Williams sisters, and those two fine Belgian gals, Kim, and the now-retired Justine, once held major sway for the past decade, or so.

Good thing she hasn't donned one of those awesome Viking horned helmets in competition. As if she isn't intimidating enough hitting one winning passing shot after another w/ her long flaxen locks flying in the breeze. (She's actually partial to a long ponytail.)

To most, the name Wozniacki doesn't have that air of a typical Danish surname............ Neilson, Larsen, Ulrick, Anderson, and such, but the simple fact is that her dad is a native Pole, and emigrated to Denmark, his now-adopted homeland. Caroline was born in Denmark.

Patricia, so that we have at least a wee bit of Scottish content here, I'll just bring up the Oliphant clan, whose home turf lies way up in the rugged northern-most climes of Caledonia, and into the Orkney Isles.

The Oliphants, apparently go way back in historical time to an ancient communing of the local Celts and the invading Norsemen, who apparently after all that silly 'raping-and-pillaging' palaver subsided, actually took their residual social intercourse, to just plain intercourse (oh behave. HA!), and voila, the Oliphant clan arose.

(A big clue to the Oliphant's Nordic lineage would be in the "Oliph", which sounds like a variant of the common (and kingly......... not so common), Scandinavian given male name, Olaph, Olof , or Olav.)

So Patricia, the Danes and the Scots go way back in early European history. Incidently, just loved Picky's descriptive line, "....... the sound of longboats' keels scrunching on the gravel." What a cool, vivid image he's conjured up, in so few words. Brilliant! I've been on those very graveled shores, in both Scotland and Denmark.

Hope you guys have a super weekend, as both The Derby and Mum's Day come hither.

*Wouldn't you know it. Yesterday, the fair Woznizcki sustained a quarter-finals defeat at the Madrid Open tourney. She also was knocked out of her last tournament, so leading up to the French Open, Caroline's No.1 status may be short-lived. Is she losing her mojo? We shall see.


I have to edit pieces with a lot of different people, and my motto is, "Kill them with kindness." I find if I'm nice and diplomatic (without being too soft), I get more positive responses. It is something I had to learn by doing, however.

Editors, call your bookies: "Comma to the Top" is a 30-to-1 Derby shot and my pick to win.

Thank you for commenting on double spaces after periods. Talk about archaic.

As for not sending emails and the like without thoroughly checking your recipients first, my solution is to leave the email address out of the "To" field until I'm satisfied with the content, and to not start a side conversation from an offshoot of a group conversation... lest your sister inadvertently send the email in which you say things that are easily misinterpreted about your sister in law to your brother.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected