I've been copy editing (writing headlines and editing stories) for three weeks at the Winnipeg Free Press and the learning curve remains vertical. Any perception of myself as a good speller and/or grammarian has been washed away. That's fine. I will learn and improve.
And I've learned a lot already. So here is the first in a series of posts on what I've picked up from the copy desk. Let me know if they're useful.
1) Grow a thick skin
Your brilliant, witty, insightful headline only looks that way to you. Or maybe it is super tasty. Guess what? It just got replaced. Get over it; you have ten headlines to write and seven pages to edit.
2) Bring the book
The spelling authorities still use analog. Can you find the definitive Canadian spelling of "half-full" (or is it "half full") online? Yeah, didn't think so. Set a dictionary and a CP stylebook by your computer.
Do go over your own writing, comparing it to your CP stylebook and dictionary, but beware the conceited human brain tends to overlook its own mistakes. Copy and paste your work into a program with an automated spell check (if the layout program you're using doesn't have one) and catch some easy errors you missed. Then get a colleague to read over your work. And when they point out obvious mistakes, do a face-palm, then write them down.
4) Be sensitive
You will be inundated with stories of larceny, wrongdoing and loss - those are the stories that make up the news. It's a natural response to distance yourself, through apathy, cynicism or dark humour. Those are legitimate responses to a whole lot of mess. But don't let it come out in your writing, because people who do care will read your paper. The punny headline you wrote about yet another Winnipeg homicide? That's someone's loved one. Ask yourself how the people involved in the story will perceive your headline. Don't write to please them and don't write in a world devoid of them.