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How to Be a Good Recruit/Tryout/Intern/Newbie

ay you have a chance to get a job at the Daily Planet, editing Clark Kent’s copy. Or maybe you’ve secured a tryout, or maybe you already have the job, or at least an internship. Now what? What might be a good way to make a good impression?

Well, for starters, read the damn paper.

That sounds old-fashioned, I know, but you might be surprised how much you can learn by just looking. (You shouldn’t be surprised, but you might be.) Spend a little time with one or seven or 14 editions and you won’t have to ask some of the questions on this list. If you’re sitting at your tryout desk next to a stack of Planets, maybe you don’t need to ask the slot editor whether the Planet uses upstyle or downstyle headlines, and whether it capitalizes the “by” in bylines. In fact, why not do a little homework and arrive at your first interview prepared to lecture your potential new boss about how his or her publication does things?

But there are some questions you must ask. I may be a big-time Daily Planet -- er, Washington Post -- copy editor and all, but if I decided to live out my golden years in Lewiston, Maine, and (after knocking out Sonny Liston in two minutes and 12 seconds) get a two-nights-a-week gig at the Sun Journal, I would have no way of knowing for sure how the writers and editors there do certain things.

So there’s your answer. To be a good recruit/tryout/intern/newbie copy editor, you must (a) stop asking so many questions and (b) ask more questions.

Through some combination of the sophisticated research methods outlined above, you should know the answers to, at the very least, these 20 (or so) questions.

1. What are the official dictionary and stylebook? AP and Webster’s New World? If not, what are they? Is there a list of exceptions? Are there unwritten exceptions that “everybody” knows?

2. How do we like our headlines? For starters, upstyle or downstyle? If they’re downstyle, that’s pretty easy. If they’re upstyle, it’s more complicated. What are the exceptions? Occasionally there are none, but usually they are articles, particles, prepositions and conjunctions of x (three? four?) letters or less. And how about the first letter in a new line? Do decks (or are they banks or subheds) follow the same rules? Do I have any leeway when it comes to squeezing or downsizing a hed to fit? What are we allowed to abbreviate in headlines? Can a November report be a Nov. report? Can $1 billion be $1B? Oh, and how much do we care about bad breaks? Do we have to worry about “ligatures,” with a different character for the fi and fl combinations?

3. And photo captions? (Or are they cutlines?) How do we handle directions? Some places like commas; others like parentheses. Some use commas to point to which picture and parentheses to point to which person within a picture. Some do truly bizarre things. And do cutlines read like sentences or like headlines? This would include the question of double vs. single quotation marks. Some places shoot for sentences but settle for headlinese when space is a problem. Same for refers/reefers/tracers/keys? And how about mugshots? Caption styles on those are all over the map. And credits? Now, there’s a minefield.

4. What do our bylines look like? Uppercase the By part? Some sort of identifier? How about stringers? There's some sort of code that takes care of the formatting, right?

5. What about states and party affiliations for politicians? Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat?

6. How do we make dashes in this content-management system? Does that give us the em? The en? With or without spaces (“tight” or “loose”)? Do reporters and assigning editors commonly send over the wrong one? If so, are there any search-and-replace tricks I should know?

7. What’s our hyphen philosophy for compound modifiers? And how do we force or cancel hyphenation to fix bad line breaks?

8. How do we make quotation marks? Is a double quotation mark the double-quotation-mark key or the apostrophe key twice? Are there any tricks for “smart” quotes and apostrophes?

9. How do we make a set of ellipses? Is it just dot dot dot, or are there thin spaces or something? Is there a keyboard shortcut? Do we, correctly, use real spaces before and after the ellipses, or do we incorrectly use thin spaces there, too? Do we, correctly, treat the period that may or may not come before ellipses as a period, or do we have some weird rule about “four-dot ellipses”? Are ellipses treated differently in headlines and pull quotes than in text? (The plain old dot dot dot is more common in those instances.)

10. What else, if anything, do we do with thin spaces or non-breaking spaces? To separate single and double quote marks when they bump up against each other? Maybe to hold $1 and million on the same line?

11. How about pull quotes? Single quotes or double? Attribution flush right, flush left, centered? With or without dash? Can the “quote” be the reporter’s words? If so, can we change them a little?

12. How do we make a fraction?

13. What is our policy on diacritical marks, and how do we make them?

14. How do we make a bullet? And how do we punctuate bulleted lists?

15. How do we format URLs in text? E-mail addresses?

16. What about the names of publications? Do we cap The when they do? Do we italicize? If so, how about headlines? Please tell me we’re not one of those weird-ass publications that use quotation marks around newspaper names in headlines.

17. Do we use honorifics on second reference? What are the exceptions? Mr. Hitler? How about Dr. on first reference? Do they have to be medical doctors?

18. What do we do about datelines and “dateline cities”? Do we follow the AP list plus leave off the state for cities within our state, or what? How strict are we on reporters having to be in the dateline community? What if it’s a double byline and only one was?

19. Does our content-management system treat multiple spaces as a single space, or do we have to clean that up? What about paragraph indents -- does the system get it right, or do we have to police those, too?

20. How do we feel about potty language? Is the top editor prudish?

And then there are multiple platforms. That could be a longer list.

Now what?


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