Archive for August, 2011
Tuesday, August 30th, 2011
Negotiating marketing copy edits
I was wondering if you could cover how to edit marketing materials in an upcoming Tip of the Week. For example, how do you handle punctuation and capitalizations? My company has recently hired a PR guy to create logos and branding materials that get sent to me for editing and, oftentimes, I see broken rules regarding the aforementioned issues. Do I disregard as creative license or fix?
Performance Impact Inc.
I’ve spent much of my career editing either marketing copy or copy that talks about marketing. As a result, I’ve come to accept that there are things in marketing copy that I must endure rather than correct.
What is marketing copy?
Gregory Wagner, of Leo Burnnett, said in a 2008 Copyediting audio conference, “Advertising is the art of selling, not the selling of art.” Marketing copy is goal-driven copy. It doesn’t exist for itself but, ultimately, to make a sale. To that end, good marketing copy is:
- Consistent with the brand character
- Enduring, extendable
To achieve all these things, marketing copy often must break a few rules. A brand might need to sound informal to strike a chord with its audience. Such text should read the way we talk—or the way we expect it to read. For example, pizza is comfort food. How Pizza Hut talks to its audience reinforces that idea:
It’s multi-meat mayhem in there. Stuffed with all your favorites—pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, pork, beef, and of course cheese.
Money, on the other hand, is serious business. Anyone taking the management of its customers’ money lightly will soon be out of business. That’s why T. Rowe Price takes a different tone with its marketing copy; it’s serious and formal. No mention of mayhem here:
T. Rowe Price offers a disciplined approach with a diverse choice of investment options to help you customize a plan to achieve your retirement goals.
What can I edit?
If it sounds like I’m saying good grammar should go out the window, I’m not. I’m not bothered by Sports Authority’s “Time out! We gotta take inventory” headline because it imitates how its target audience speaks. But I am bothered by Old Navy’s “Lets Go” T-shirts. There’s no clever meaning behind Lets Go, and it doesn’t advance the brand in any way. It’s just a glaring typo. However, Old Navy’s reaction to the typo is on brand:
A company’s marketing materials should apply rules consistently and the message should be easily understandable. Any grammar, usage, style, or punctuation rules that are broken should be done so consistently, with purpose, and in a way that the audience will react to favorably.
What you can correct, or at least query:
- Typos. Spelling and punctuation errors can be big embarrassments for a company. When the audience notices that you used lets go instead of let’s go or Stopables instead of Stoppables, you lose credibility with them. And lost credibility means lost sales.
- Factually wrong words. Watch for false claims, brand names used incorrectly, and words that don’t commonly mean what the writer thinks they do.
- Grammar and usage that are incorrect and don’t add to the message. Look for a reason for something to be incorrect before you correct it. Remember Apple’s Think Different campaign? Better yet, flag it and be prepared to listen to why something is the way it is.
- Unparallel bullet lists. If you can make all the items in a bullet list all verb phrases or all noun phrases, give it a go. If one item ends with a period, end them all with periods. On the other hand, if making the items parallel means rewriting the whole list, query before you rewrite. It may not be worth the effort.
- Anything potentially libelous or ethically wrong. Any day you can keep your company out of hot water is a good day. Be willing to flag potential legal problems and pass them by the lawyers.
What you can let go of:
- Odd capitalization or boldfacing. Unorthodox capitalization or bolding is often used for a visual effect or to capture attention.
- Informal speech. As long as it fits the brand’s identity, let go of gotta.
- Sentence fragments. Unless they are overwhelming, don’t worry about sentence fragments. Copywriters often use them for effect.
- Missing words that don’t add to the message. Copywriters will often employ a telegraphic style to their writing. There’s not a great difference between “Offer expires August 31, 2011” and “This offer expires August 31, 2011,” except that the first is punchier and more likely to get attention.
Your best bet is to have a conversation with your supervisor or the copywriter about what you will let go of and what you’ll enforce and create a detailed style sheet. Being in agreement means you know what to let go of, making your job easier in the long run.
Editing marketing copy can be difficult for copyeditors because rules don’t seem to apply. Every time I proof one company’s press releases, I have to refrain from certain corrections. I don’t agree with what they do. But what they do works for them, and that’s the goal. My job is to see that the copy follows the style they’ve set out as well as ensuring a certain correctness in the language. Letting go makes me a better copyeditor because I’m learning to control my impulses and remember whose copy it is.
Congratulations to Ella Wilcox, who won the year’s subscription to Copyediting for filling out our survey on the newsletter. Thanks to everyone who completed the survey. Your responses were very helpful and we’ll use them to guide the newsletter going forward.
Have you had to deal with unusual or unique style rules? How did you negotiate potential land mines? Share your experiences with other editorsin the comments section below.
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Monday, August 22nd, 2011
I say copyedit, you say copy edit
Never mind the serial comma. If you want to see a group of copyeditors go toe to toe, ask them whether copyedit is one word or two. Chances are you’ll get two very strong opinions, neither side allowing that the other might have a reasonable argument.
This particular issue has been discussed several times in the pages of the Copyediting newsletter. When the newsletter went from being Copy Editor to Copyediting in the October–November 2007 issue, then-editor Wendi Nichols decided to go with the one-word spelling rather than the two. She made her argument for it (subscribers can read it here) and gave space to those who favored leaving it as two words through the voice of Bill Walsh (subscribers can read it here).
No matter which side of the argument you stand on, however, there’s a relevant point that we’re ignoring in our battle to be “right”: two words becoming one word is a natural, if messy, process. Writes Bryan Garner in Modern American Usage, “The normal process in modern English is for separate words used habitually to become hyphenated, then fused into a single word (e.g., to day became to-day in the 19th century and then today in the 20th).”
Language evolves. Even copyeditors, correcting all their peeves to their hearts’ content, can’t stop language change any more than we can stop the ocean tide coming in. In his new book, What Language Is, John McWhorter writes that it is “general silliness” to resist a “language’s moving on as all languages always have … No one in Milan walks around annoyed that people aren’t speaking Latin.”
But copyeditors are paid to make content consistent and understandable to the audience. If language changes slowly and unevenly, and the resources that record them—our dictionaries, grammars, and usage guides—change even more slowly and unevenly, what are copyeditors to do? A word such as copyedit is in flux; it has more than one accepted spelling and insisting that one preferred spelling is the only right spelling doesn’t get the job done.
“If you reject momento as a misspelling, on what grounds do you base your objection?” asks Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in its spelling discussion. “Certainly it is unetymological, but so is confidante, so is island, so is scissors. A better basis for deciding whether to use or reject a variant spelling is prevalent current use; most people spell it memento.”
The trick, then, is discovering prevalent current use. A copyeditor’s first line of defense is always to check the house dictionary or style guide. It’s the easy path: just follow what your dictionary says for any word with variant spellings. If both are listed, go with the first one. Or the most popular one. Or the one that strikes your fancy.
Not satisfied with that, you could go with the spelling that is supported by the most resources—or the most influential resources or your favorite resources. Take a poll. For example, copyedit is supported by The American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and The Chicago Manual of Style. Copy edit is recommended by Webster’s New World Dictionary, The Associated Press Stylebook, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
Or you could choose to do your own research, which is becoming easier all the time. Sift through raw data in Google News, Google Books (narrowing results to modern day), and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). All aggregate words in their edited context. Each use of copy edit and copyedit was considered by, well, a copyeditor. Choose the spelling that returns the most hits or that returns the most hits within a specific parameter that matches your text.
No matter how you choose, you’re going to have to choose something. Pick a measurement that you feel comfortable defending and go measure. Then be consistent, and tolerate others’ choices.
“Languages are messy,” writes McWhorter, “it’s part of being the end product of sound changes, drifting meanings, and words coming together to make new ones. What’s new in a language is neither a mistake nor subject, in a logical sense, to condemnation as unlikeable. It is inherent to languages to be always gradually becoming other ones—and that, ladies and gentlemen, is never an orderly process.”
What guidelines do you follow to deal with variant spellings? Share them in the comments section below.
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Tuesday, August 16th, 2011
I would call slang a “counter-language,” the desire of human beings, when faced by a standard version, of whatever that might be, to come up with something different, perhaps parallel, perhaps oppositional. For me, that is what slang does in terms of language. I believe that such reactions are hard-wired into our species. Humanity, one hopes, will continue. So too will slang. —Jonathon Green, Green’s Dictionary of Slang
Slang can be tough for a copyeditor to deal with: Does the term mean what the author thinks it means? Is it OK to use that slang term in this copy? Will our readers understand it? And on and on.
At least one question can be answered a little easier, thanks to the Internet. We have more resources than ever for determining if a slang term truly exists and whether the author is using it correctly.
The newest resource is Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Released in print earlier this year, this 3-volume, 6,000-page reference by Jonathan Green is a gold mine of historic and modern slang. Linguists, lexicographers, and other language professionals love it. Copyediting’s new Dictionary Update editor Mark Peters uses it frequently in his Visual Thesaurus column on old and new euphemisms, Evasive Maneuvers. His May column listed such gems as sophisticated lady (for cocaine) and have one’s little hat on (for being drunk).
“The gulf between a wiki-like hodge-podge like Urban Dictionary and a careful, researched work of scholarship like Green’s is huge,” says Peters. “On Urban Dictionary and other slang sites, it’s hard to tell a momentary coinage from slang that’s been slung for decades or even centuries. With the historical context and sample sentences, Green’s shows the depth and breadth of slang as we’ve never seen it. It is now the number one authority on slang—for etymology, appropriateness, and social context. If words are your trade, you just don’t have a full toolbox without Green’s.”
Green’s scholarship comes at a heavy cost, though: $525.47 on Amazon when I wrote this column. Not that it isn’t worth every penny, but the price may be a bit steep for copyeditors who wouldn’t use the resource every day.
Now, though, your library or other institution can purchase an electronic version from Oxford University Press’s (OUP’s) Digital Resource Shelf. OUP allows institutions to purchase many reference works like e-books, giving them “complete ownership of the title,” says Erin Fegely, Online Products Marketing Associate at OUP. Titles include The Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace, and now Green’s.
In the end, though, we still have to ask if the resource is worth the cost. Certainly you can make a case for your local library or other institution to purchase the electronic Green’s. And the scholarship is excellent, just what you’d expect from the publisher of The Oxford English Dictionary. How often will you dip into it, though? It contains a lot of words, but unless you can take advantage of its historical depth or the breadth of its English variants, you might want to try something else.
I polled Copyediting’s Twitter and Facebook followers for what they use, and here’s what they suggested:
- Urban Dictionary. By far, responders check Urban Dictionary the most. However, if you’re easily, or even not so easily, offended, you might want to check this site when other resources have failed. Another drawback is that entries are submitted by users and then voted on by all users as accurate or not. The cream rises to the top, of course, but it takes time. I added googlemap to try the site out, and my definition had received only one thumbs down vote as of this writing.
- World Wide Words by Michael Quinion. I’ve long been a fan of World Wide Words and Quinion’s work. His research is solid and current. The drawback is that Quinion’s just one man and compiling and defining slang can be a lifetime of work.
- InternetSlang.com for Internet and computer slang.
- College students, teens, tweens, and other hip language speakers.
- Google Books.
- Google. If it’s out there, you can find it on Google, right?
There’s a lot to be said for the last two items. With all the information available online, it’s becoming easier to be your own researcher. You can mine all sorts of edited and unedited content for a specific word or phrase online and draw a conclusion on how it’s currently used—something I’ll try to cover in a future blog post.
How do you verify slang terms? Share your resources with other copyeditors in the comments section below.
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