Musings after a year of proofreading


More than a year, actually. I have been donating my early mornings to Newsroom, a new New Zealand news site with an innovative business model. According to its own description, Newsroom does independent journalism and “in-depth storytelling for thinking audiences”, producing “quality written and video stories that set the national news agenda and inform intelligent conversations”. They take donations, they choose their sponsor partners carefully and their NewsroomPro service releases articles to the general readership 24 hours after subscribers receive them.

On the whole, Newsroom accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. There is no clickbait, either in the form of advertisements or in the guise of articles masquerading as news. Its journalists' work is complemented by contributions from subject matter experts from Newsroom’s sponsors in the corporate and tertiary education sectors. Its investigative journalist broke a news story in 2019 that led to the launching of no less than five separate inquiries into the practices of the government department under scrutiny.

Newsroom’s stories are worth reading.

I have been proofreading for them on an ad hoc basis – read unpaid (in more ways than one) – for the past 15 months now. There was an initial proposal on my part, but at the end of the day (actually, literally, at the beginning of each day) I was happy to donate my services to a source of good journalism.

This service has been mutually beneficial. It gives me a sense of immediate satisfaction when I occasionally check back on the articles I’ve proofread before breakfast and see Newsroom has acted on typos I’ve identified or improvements I’ve suggested. So, I read good journalism regularly, while honing my proofreading skills, and Newsroom gets some real-time proofreading done on its articles.

I have a few comments, on journalism in general, that I feel slightly qualified to make after having read with a proofreader’s eye over an extended period.

 

Writing well is an art. Writing well to a daily deadline is art done with one eye on the clock.

Hats off to the remaining journalists who ply their profession here in New Zealand and around the world. In the words of Douglas Murray, during a speaking engagement that I attended a couple of years ago, to a young person who identified himself as a journalism student: “May God help you” – or benediction to that effect – Murray having just told the audience that journalism was a dying profession.

I can see that perfectly correct writing, as if there even is such a thing, is not Priority Number One in the world of journalism. Not when the historical business models of journalism have experienced seismic upheavals in recent years. Business survival must be given first priority: publishing articles, attracting clicks – some choose to use clickbait, while others choose good journalism – building subscription numbers and cultivating partnerships with sponsors.

I am happy to help out by proofreading a newly-published article, giving Newsroom the opportunity to correct it early in the day.

 

Comma usage is mixed.

In my experience, the comma may be the most poorly used punctuation tool in journalism. And the way it’s used differs markedly between writers. Some over-employ it; others hardly use it. Many misuse it.

The effects of each type of writer vary. Over-users give me the impression that they know every possible spot a comma could plausibly be used and they intend to fill every single slot. I find myself reading their next line a little apprehensive of how many commas I’ll find. These writers will go for the Oxford comma, every time.

Under-users have me asking – breathlessly – would it hurt to have inserted just one comma in that five-line sentence? I wonder if those writers fear the comma or simply perceive it as surplus to requirements.

And then there is, the misplaced comma. (I hope you saw what I did there.) The uncanny ability of a misplaced comma to transform the meaning of a sentence into something completely unintended is fearful.

 

Almost nobody knows what to do with hyphens.

I’ve told you the importance of well-placed commas, and I’ve also mentioned that they are often not well placed. Following closely in second place, in my opinion, is the use of hyphens. I often encounter compound adjectives such as “well-placed” coming after the nouns they modify, or not so “well placed”, absent of hyphen, in front of their noun. It is not unusual to see hyphenated words repeated hyphen-free a couple of paragraphs later, indicating ad hoc application rather than consistency.

 

That’s it. Commas and hyphens.

But, most importantly of all, kudos to the writers who do it every day, to a deadline. And then follow it up all over again the next day. And the next. And the next.

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