A copy editor’s secret weapons

I keep a couple of online tools handy while I copy edit. For the most part, they won’t surprise you. But I do have one secret weapon.

For speed and efficiency, I open a window in Firefox and always keep the following tabs available:

Merriam-Webster.com

Thesaurus.com

The AP Stylebook (Requires subscription)

And the secret weapon? I’ll get to that.

The first two are obvious. These sites work well. Like Google, if they think you’ve misspelled a search term, they propose a spelling correction. Since I started using it, thesaurus.com made every word a live link. So, like Facebook or a computer game, you can get lost in the thesaurus, jumping from word to word to word. OK, only if you’re a word nerd.

The online stylebook is better than a paper book, but not yet user-friendly. It has no corrective search, so if your entry isn’t correct AP style, the search won’t find it. So, there’s no way to know for sure if the entry is there, other than guessing other possible spellings or constructions.

On the positive side, the online stylebook lets you add notes specific to your publication’s or site’s style to an entry, and allows you to add unique entries for your publication’s style and usage. Best of all, it updates when AP changes its style. This one came across in just the past week:

U.S. The abbreviation is acceptable as a noun or adjective for United States. In headlines, it’s US (no periods).

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for. (Drumroll please.) My secret weapon is The New York Times and I use it like this. If there’s a usage I’m not sure about, say, a compound modifier like *a less than loyal fan*, then I search like this:

“a less-than” (use quotation marks). You’ll get all uses since 1981. Here are the first few results:

a less-than-loyal fan base

a less-than perfect mandate

a less than-subtle play

a less than positive response

Notice the inconsistency? Isn’t it great? The Times makes mistakes. Lots of ’em! You’ll find Times inconsistencies on almost every single usage. But you can generally tell what’s right, based on the number of times the usage pops up in one form or another. In this case, the first version wins.

That’s a secret weapon? Well, it has worked well for me. Think about it this way. If you can’t find it, do it the way the Times does it most often. Of course, sometimes the results aren’t clear-cut. See rapid-response team for example. But hey, if the Times isn’t sure, then nobody is.

Now, you can be first to answer if your co-workers, like mine, call out questions, like:

“Do we use periods in U.S.?”

“Is the S in MySpace capitalized?”

“Do you spell out Fort in Fort Worth?

In the past it was easier to ask out loud than to look something up. Reporters and copy editors have asked these questions aloud for as long as I’ve been in newsrooms. But now, with the magic of the Web and some expertly chosen tools, it’s just as fast — and a lot more accurate — to look it up.

I’m curious to know what handy tools other copy editors use and how accurate, user-friendly and useful they are.

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2 Responses

  1. Here’s a free way to get some AP style questions answered:http://www.apstylebook.com/ask_editor.php

  2. The World Factbook from the CIA is a good resource for facts and figures on countries, world leaders, population, demographics, maps, political parties, etc.https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

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