If you see something, say something: The copy editor’s code

The first sentence in a recent news story in the Clayton News-Star, the community newspaper that is delivered to my house twice a week, stopped me. I puzzled over it for a while before going on to finish the article. Here it is:

One home and one camper have been burned to a singe in a fire that the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office suspects was caused by arson.

The word that stopped me was the noun singe. I wondered at first if the writer meant to write “burned to a cinder,” which seemed to me to be more idiomatic. But as a copy editor, I know better than to make an assumption, especially about word use. So I looked up singe to see whether dictionaries listed it as a noun as well as a verb – not to “prove” that the word is not to be used as a noun, but to find out whether that usage is recorded.

Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition, (my new favorite) defines the noun singe as “a slight or surface burn; a scorch.” Other dictionaries give similar definitions. The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary says a singe is “a superficial burn.”

The photos that accompanied the news story showed more than a singe, I think, but perhaps the damaged house and camper looked more scorched than burned in reality. The headline called the building and the camper “gutted.” A caption on a secondary photo described “A singed stovetop among other unusable remains …”  One point for the copy editor to keep in mind is whether the story, photos and headline all work together and give an accurate impression. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the story online to link to it so you readers won’t be able to see the photos.)

If I had been the copy editor on that story, I would have felt compelled to ask the writer about singe. This is assuming that I had time, of course, but because the word is in the first paragraph, the lede in newspaper jargon, I would try to make time. I would ask the writer whether the assonance of singe and cinder came into play in the choice of words. Cinder might not be right either, but the image of burned material and ashes seemed to make that a possibility.

This unease over something I have read underlies a lesson that I have had to learn over and over and over again in my copy editing career. (I am apparently quite thick-headed on this point.) If something in a piece of copy bothers you, it is worth checking. Whether it’s confirming the use of an unexpected turn of phrase or verifying a fact that seems off, copy editors have to get questions cleared up. Now, in this case, the copy editor might have looked up singe and found the usage acceptable. That’s reasonable due diligence under deadline pressure. Many times, however, a nagging question in a copy editor’s mind will involve more research and more communication with the content creator.

This quote by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, which I ran across in something I edited recently, seems apt for a copy editor learning to question his or her own knowledge as well as the work being edited. An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.  I have made enough mistakes to think I might be an expert in the narrow field of copy editing.

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