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Copy Reading

( Originally Published 1911 )

If that change occurs (a return to smaller newspapers) there will be an increased demand for the services of the man who possesses not the common ability to make a story long and diffuse, but the rare talent of making it short, vivid and complete. There is hardly a newspaper office in the country in which the difficult and admirable art of compression has not been to a greater or less extent neglected in recent years.—From a lecture by HART LYMAN, editor of the New York Tribune.

The copy readers on a metropolitan newspaper do the work that is commonly associated with the word editor : they " blue-pencil," or edit, the news copy. Tradition has equipped the editor with a blue pencil and has made it a symbol of editorial callousness. In reality, the copy reader s much more likely to use a soft black pencil with which a word may be cut out at a single stroke or an illuminating word inserted in broad, unmistakable characters. The copy reader takes the story as it comes from the reporter and puts it through a refining process. His work is critical rather than creative. It is destructive so far as errors of grammar, violations of news style and libel are concerned. But if his sense of news is keen, as that of every copy reader should be, he will find abundant opportunity for something more than mechanical deletion and interlineation. He may insert a terse bit of ex-planation to clear away obscurity. or may add a piquant touch that will redeem a story from dullness. To the degree that he edits news with sympathy and understanding, with a clear perception of news values, his work may be regarded as creative. If, on the other hand, he conceives it his duty to reduce all writing to a dead level of mediocrity, if his ideal of editing is merely to wage war on the split infinitive and substitute "obtain" for "secure," no matter what the sense, he richly deserves the epithet that is certain to be hurled at the copy reader by the reporter whose fine phrases have been cut out — he is in truth a " butcher " of copy.


The efficient copy reader has a good working knowledge of the English language; he has a highly developed sense of news; he knows the style of his paper; he is content with nothing short of accuracy. To write headlines, he must have primarily the knack of putting the gist of a story into a few short, simple words. With all these qualifications he may yet fail if he is not able, when occasion demands, to work swiftly. It follows that he should keep in touch with current affairs and should lose no opportunity to add to his stock of knowledge of the city in which he works. The name of the Secretary of the Interior, the latest development in a famous will case, whether a thoroughfare is a street or an avenue, the initials of the county recorder — all such details can be found in the files of the newspaper or in reference books, but the copy reader can save valuable time if he has them filed away in his memory. New words are constantly coming into general use and new ideas are demanding expression. The copy reader must keep abreast of the big movements in science, in politics, in all the fields from which news stories are drawn. The right attitude toward his work was shown by a copy reader who, when ballooning first gave evidence of becoming a popular sport, went to the public library and looked in the index for " aeronautics." He got the best book he could find on the subject and studied it. He learned the principles of ballooning and its special vocabulary and when stories of the new sport began to come to him, he was able to " blue-pencil " the copy intelligently.


The number of copy readers depends, of course, upon the size of the newspaper. Small-city papers may have no men employed solely for this work. On the larger papers the staff of copy readers aver-ages perhaps six or seven, while some offices use as many as a dozen or more. These men are said to comprise the " copy desk," and all news copy, in theory at least, passes through their hands. On some papers the staff is divided, part reading telegraph copy under the telegraph editor and part working in the local room under the city editor. Other offices have adopted the newer plan of the combined desk, where both telegraph and local copy is read. This desk is in charge of a head copy reader, who apportions the copy among the readers, passes on their work after it is finished, and in general keeps things moving. The head copy reader is in effect a news editor or an assistant news editor. It is his duty to see that neither the local nor the telegraph department plays up " its stories unduly, but that each story, whatever its source, is rated at its true value in relation to the other news of the day.


The work of the copy reader is twofold : (1) to edit the copy and (2) to write the head. Only the first of these functions will be discussed in this chapter.

In brief, the copy reader should hew and polish the story to exactly the form in which it should appear in print. He is a skilled workman, employed to trim away the rough edges. By this it is not meant that the copy reader is expected to give the story the grace and elegance of literature. He should give it, if it has not already, grammatical exactness, freedom from ambiguity, and the force that goes with direct, simple statement of fact. This is the groundwork of the copy reader's task — to make the story correct in form as in fact.

Less obviously, he must make the story conform to style— not only to the general laws of news writing, but to the special, arbitrary style of the newspaper for which it is written. Every good newspaper has an individuality, expressed partly in what is rather vaguely termed its style. The general style of a newspaper, its habitual attitude toward news, can be learned only by close observation of its columns. Specific rules, however, are laid down to cover the more mechanical aspects of style, such as punctuation and capitalization. No two newspapers agree in all the details of style. In giving an address, for example, the word " street" may be printed St., Street or street. Capital letters are used sparingly by some papers, liberally by others. Ages may be spelled out, as eighty-one years old, or the figures, 81, may be used. Style determines the method of giving titles : it may be "the Rev. William Jones " in one newspaper, " the Reverend William Jones " in another and "Rev. William Jones " in a third. " Program" or "programme" may be the form required. All such rules, which the newspaper makes in order to get uniformity, are usually embodied in a style-book, issued for the guidance of both the editorial and the mechanical department.

Compositors, as a rule, follow style as regards capitalization and like details, no matter how the copy is marked, unless the specific direction follow copy " appears in the margin. Proofreaders, too, are instructed to observe style. It is always desirable, however, that copy when sent to the printer should be correct in every detail. The lino-type operator loses time if he is compelled to read ahead to supply a missing word. Mistakes that get into type are marked by the proofreaders and corrected, but all this takes time and increases the cost of composition. The ideal piece of copy has every word and every punctuation mark correct. This is the standard, as regards mechanics, toward which the copy reader should strive. Sometimes, when he is working under pressure, he may find it impossible to correct any except the glaring mistakes. Here enters the factor of time. When a big story comes into the office only a few minutes before time for going to press, the copy reader cannot afford to hesitate over a misplaced comma; his first concern is to get the story to the printers, with the facts straight. Incidentally, it is a good general rule that the copy reader should not make a change in a minor detail of style unless he is sure he is right. When in doubt about a comma, omit.

Just what is meant by style may be seen from the following extracts regarding the use of figures from newspaper style-books :

" When an indefinite sum is mentioned, do not put in figures, as a dollar, about a hundred dollars, a million dollars, millions of dollars, etc."—Chicago Record-Herald.

" When figures are given in round numbers, say 1 million dollars instead of $1,000,000; also million for 250,000; 1/2 million for 500,000; 3/4 million for 750,000. Also ` The attendance was ten thou-sand ' ; but 'The attendance was 10,375' "— Kansas City Star.


Only at the price of eternal vigilance on the part of reporters and editors can libelous matter be kept out of the newspaper. No item is too small to contain a potential libel suit ; indeed it is the small items that most frequently cause trouble. Routine items, especially those from police sources, should be watched carefully. A story of considerable length that appears dangerous is always closely edited, but too often minor stories, because of their very in-significance, are allowed to slip by the copy desk and into print without thought of their mischief-making possibilities.

A vest-pocket card containing libel warnings and headed " Look at This Every Day," is given by the St. Louis Republic to each of its copy readers. First is this note :

" Editors and reporters should never forget that no news article is valuable enough to compensate fora libel suit. Take no chances. When in doubt, consult the head of your department."

The rules which follow are a good summary of the main facts about libel that the copy reader needs to remember:

" 1. Heads are danger points. Never make in a head a damaging assertion which is not borne out fully in the text. Qualify in both to be sure.

" 2. Make no assertions against any person's con-duct or character unless you are ready to supply complete legal evidence.

" 3. Do not draw conclusions adverse to conduct or character. Never leave the plain facts. Let the facts tell the whole story.

" 4. Be sure the wrong person is not made to appear. This is often done, either by slips in writing names or mistakes about identity of persons involved. Get every name absolutely right.

" 5. Be careful about using names given by unknown persons. It is a common practice for criminals and other delinquents to assume the names of respectable persons.

Dangerous Ground

" 1. Court Reports. Any court news affecting business standing or business transactions. Watch names. Be careful about reporting business failures or embarrassments.

" 2. Stories affecting professional repute of doctors, lawyers, preachers and other professions de-pendent upon personal esteem.

" 3. Stories affecting the character of women. Use no epithets or adjectives unnecessarily. Never on hearsay connect a woman with a detrimental action. Watch names.

" 4. Statements from one side. This includes petitions in law cases. Never base an assertion on these experte statements. Get both sides or say that it is from one side and be careful even then. The fact that a petition has been filed does not necessarily justify publication."

Bear in mind, too, that a libelous statement is not excused by the fact that it is quoted. " It is said," " it is reported " and like expressions scattered through a story are no defense against a suit for damages. The newspaper is responsible for everything it prints. Avoid the libel that lurks in qualifying words. A statement otherwise harmless may be so colored with adjectives and adverbs expressing disapproval that it will furnish ground for legal action. Let the plain facts tell the story.

The copy reader — in fact, anyone concerned in the preparation of news matter — will do well to inform himself thoroughly of the laws on this subject.


Assume now that you are editing a story to carry what is called a top head (a head used only at the top of a column). In the upper left-hand corner of the first page the city editor or the head copy reader has written a guide line naming the story and designating the size of the head. This is the " slug " by which the story is identified in all the processes through which it passes from the copy reader into print. The guide line, for example, " Fire No. 2," is set in caps at the head of the story and remains there until the story is placed, with its head, in the position allotted it by the make-up editor in the type forms. Any identifying word may be used to name a story, but no two stories should bear the same " slug."

The guide line, of course, is not intended to appear in print, its purpose being merely to facilitate the handling of the story. But as lines designed only for office information have a way of slipping into the paper in the hurry of making up, the copy reader should take care, when he " slugs " a story, to choose some word that will not cause embarrassment if published. It is related that a facetious copy reader once " slugged " a wedding story with a view to furnishing amusement for the office force. The next morning the proprietor of the newspaper, who happened to be particularly interested in the wedding, and a hundred thousand or more other readers saw, between the headlines and the story proper, in bold-face capital letters, the amazing line: " Suicide No. 3." The printer who made up the page had neglected to throw away the guide line. Since then the copy readers on that paper have taken care to " slug " stories discreetly.

The text of the story is put into type on one or more linotype machines, while the top head, at least part of which generally must be set by hand, goes to another department of the composing room. For this reason the guide line that appears on the story must be duplicated on the copy for the head, in order that no mistake may be made in assembling the two. A story that carries a minor head, which may be written in the clear space left by the reporter at the top of the first page, need not be " slugged " unless there is some special reason for labeling it.

The guide line is used to bring together all the stories that go into one department. Thus all items intended for the sporting page are marked " Sport." Sometimes a story is to be followed by one or more related stories. Take for example the account of a widespread flood, of which reports are received from several towns. The story which is to come first is marked " Lead Flood " and all other items bearing on the same general subject are labeled " Follow (generally abbreviated to " folo ") Flood." If " folo " items are to appear in a set order, they should be marked " First Folo," " Second Folo," etc. The term " folo " should not be confused with " add." An " add " to a story is tacked on without a break, while a " folo " is a separate story, with its own head. A dash some-what shorter than the regular news size is used be-fore the " folo " and usually the head is of a special type to indicate the dependence of the story on what has gone before.

In the example given above, " Fire No. 2," the numeral shows the style of head to be written. Heads are numbered or lettered, each office having its own system. Usually the most important head is called No. 1 or A, the next No. 2 or B and so on. A ring is drawn around the guide line, or any other direction to the printer, to show that it is not a part of the text.


Having noted any directions marked on the story, the copy reader proceeds to the business of making it ready for publication. With an eye to detect imperfections, he goes through the story, adding a word now and then for the sake of clearness, attacking bombast and obscurity, transposing misplaced words and phrases, perhaps even picking up a feature from the end and putting it in the lead.

The beginning of each paragraph is plainly indicated, either with the paragraph mark (¶) or in the manner shown in the illustration. Short paragraphs are favored as an aid to the reader's eye. Seldom is a newspaper paragraph longer than twenty lines, or about 150 words; the conservative Springfield (Mass.) Republican sets a limit of 400 words. Follow the style of the newspaper in this respect.

When several words are cut out of copy, it is a good practice to bridge the gap with a curving line connecting the ends of the matter which is left standing. By following this line with his eye, the compositor is enabled to skip rapidly over the omitted portion. Never leave a single word standing marooned with a long deletion on each side.

Scratch out the word and rewrite it at the beginning or the end of the erasure, where there is no chance that the type-setter will overlook it.

Use the caret mark (A) to denote an insertion., Three horizontal lines drawn under a small letter indicates it is to be set as a capital ; a diagonal line through a capital from left to right makes it a small letter. A ring around an abbreviated word means it is to be spelled out. But if there is any danger of misunderstanding (as in the case of " Co.," which may stand for county or company), write out the word as you desire it set. Vice versa, a ring may be drawn around a complete word to show it is to be abbreviated. To make the period plain it may be encircled, or a small cross (x) may be used instead. An inverted caret mark ( v ) is sometimes drawn under an apostrophe to distinguish it from the comma. The same method may be used to make quotation marks stand out plainly. Two short parallel marks are used for a hyphen and a single longer line for a dash. Transposition is denoted by lines as illustrated in the cut.

To run two paragraphs together draw a " run-in " line from the end of the first to the beginning of the second paragraph. When a page ends on a sentence but not on a paragraph, draw a diagonal line from the last word to the lower right-hand corner and a line on the next page from the upper left-hand corner to the first word. Make the paragraph sign at the end of a page when it closes with a paragraph.

Never write up and down the page in the margin. If what you have to insert cannot be written between the lines, put it on another piece of paper and paste it in the copy at the proper place. Lines writ-ten the vertical length of the page are sure to make trouble for the copy cutter, who cuts the copy into small " takes " for the linotype machines. The operator, too, is bothered by having to stop and turn the page so he can read it.

See that the pages are numbered and that the story is closed with an end-mark. Any mark that plainly denotes the end will answer the purpose. Some of the symbols used are " 30 " enclosed in a circle, a cross made of parallel lines and a mark like the letter H. A common error in copy reading is the omission of quotation marks at the end of quoted matter; be careful on this point.

In general, copy should be marked with a view to simplifying the work of the printer as much as possible. Too many marks are worse than too few. Never put the printer's ingenuity to the test by an intricate maze of lines to indicate a transposition; if there is any chance of confusion, cross out and rewrite. Neatness in copy is desirable, but it should never be allowed to stand in the way of making the intent of the writer perfectly clear. Anything to be omitted should be crossed out so unmistakably that there will be no possibility of its being set. Be equally careful not to cross out too much.


Not all stories come to the copy reader completed. As press time draws near, important stories are taken from the reporters page by page and rushed to the composing room. No confusion need result if the copy reader marks each piece properly. Assume that you are handling a late wreck story, which is coming to the copy desk bit by bit. The first installment sent to the printers is slugged " " Lead Wreck," or perhaps simply " Wreck." At the end be sure to write the word " more." This informs the copy cutter, who receives the copy in the composing room, that the story is still running. The second installment should be marked " First Add Wreck," the next " Second Add Wreck " and so on, the word " wreck " being repeated each time. At the end of each installment up to the last the word " more " should be written plainly and the last should be closed with an end-mark.

Often the process is somewhat complicated by the necessity of making insertions in the story. Matter to be inserted is generally lettered, as " Insert A Wreck," " Insert B Wreck," etc. If possible, the point at which the insertion is to be made should be noted on the copy, as " Insert A Wreck after first paragraph." Otherwise, the place should be designated on a proof sheet. At the close of the " insert," as the trade slang has it, write " End Insert."

The terms " A Copy," " B Copy " and so on are sometimes used to mark sections of a story which are sent over in advance of the lead. The copy reader then designates in the lead where these sections are to be placed. For example, he may write at a certain point, " Here pick up and insert B copy," and at the end, " Pick up A copy." An " add " may be sent out with the guide line, " Add Fire, lead to come," but when the story is broken up into several parts it is simpler to use letters as indicated.

" Turn rule for add " is sometimes written at the end of a story when more is expected. This means that an inverted rule, which in proof shows as a heavy black line, is to be placed after the story to indicate it is incomplete.

A story is marked " Head to Come " when for any reason the copy for the head is not sent to the composing room with the text. A story intended for publication in a certain edition is so marked, as " First Edition," " Rush for Home Edition," " Up-State Edition." Often a story is brought up to date with a new lead after running through one or more editions. This matter should be slugged " " New Lead," and the changes marked on a clipping of the story or a proof sheet. " Must " on a story indicates that under no circumstances is it to be killed.

Not infrequently the copy reader keeps two or even three stories moving in sections to the composing room at the same time. While he is waiting for an "add " to a fire story, he may edit the first installment of a dispatch from Washington, prepare an " Insert Murder " and in the intervals write heads and take care of several small items. The example is extreme, but it illustrates the condition of stress under which the copy reader often works. To seize and retain the main facts of a story, so he can write the head after the copy has left his hands, he must keep his mind keyed up to the highest notch of efficiency. Names above all must be closely watched. A moment's wandering of the attention may lead to the statement in a headline that Jones killed Smith, when in fact Smith killed Jones. Plainly the day of the irresponsible " Bohemian " in journalism is at an end; the modern newspaper demands clear-headed, alert, dependable workmen.


Copy reading has its lighter side. Gems of unconscious humor come to the desk over the wire, through the mails and now and then from the " cub " reporters in the local room. Witness the following, taken verbatim from a story that did not get into print:

Patrolman Prim of Twelfth District Station suffered two broken knuckles of his right hand, when he struck Charles Wilson, of No. 2324 B street, yesterday afternoon on the nose. Wilson resisted arrest and the fight followed. The latter's nose was slightly scratched, and is held at the station.

A volunteer correspondent wrote :

Sneak theaves made away with the contribution box Sunday eavning just after there had been a liberal donation from the congregation of some fifty dollars at the Methodist Church.

It seams that no one was paing eny atenshion to the countribution box after the colexion was taken.

It setting in easy reach of a good many on the alter.

The person or persons that speited it away was very boald as well as slick, at eany rate it was taken while the congercation was still in the house.

Some say they think they know who took it and there will be a clost watch on them for the next flew days.

A suburban correspondent contributed this:

John Angel, the man who was rescued from a horrible death last Thursday night by being killed by a passenger train, passing over his body, by Fred Anderson, is yet in a very serious condition but is somewhat improved from his condition on Friday.


On a printed form the copy reader keeps a record of all the stories he handles, giving the name of the writer, the style of head, the estimated number of words and the time. A sample entry would be : " Jones — Fire — No. 4 — 250 — 8 :30," meaning that Jones, a reporter, wrote a 250-word fire story, which the copy reader sent to the printer, with a No. 4 head, at 8 :30 o'clock. Such a record enables the editor at any time to trace an offending item to its source.

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