Ask The Post

Don Podesta, assistant managing editor for copy desks, The Washington Post
Don Podesta, assistant managing editor for copy desks, The Washington Post (The Washington Post)
Don Podesta
Assistant Managing Editor, Copy Desks
Wednesday, May 3, 2006; 12:00 PM

This Week: Don Podesta, assistant managing editor for copy desks, was online Wednesday, May 3, at noon ET to take questions and comments about editing and headline writing throughout The Washington Post. Podesta oversees the staff of copy editors who pore over stories for spelling, grammatical and factual errors. Copy editors also play a large role in forming the headlines that appear in the paper.

The transcript follows.


Don Podesta: Thank you all for coming to the site with your questions.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm curious about The Post's conventions for referring to reporters. For instance, some reporters (e.g., Robin Givhan) refer to themselves as "we," and others use phrases such as "X told a reporter."

Givhan's practice works, most of the time, for her because her writing is so deliciously arch, but, even so, it can get tiresome. The "told a reporter" construction seems absurd; it sounds like the source was speaking to someone other than the person who wrote the article.

Is there an internal standard?

Don Podesta: You raise a good point. We don't have an internal standard for how reporters and columnists refer to themselves in print, and maybe we should. It would probably be a menu of standards, though, as I doubt one size would fit all. For instance, a critic or columnist might just write in the first person, while a news reporter who witnessed a bombing or car crash might approach it differently.


Alexandria, Va.: How do online headlines differ from print headlines at The Post? And how important is the lead for online writing, compared to print?

Don Podesta: Excellent question. We find that clever headlines and anecdotal ledes or suspended interest ledes on the print side are a disservice to our Web site. The reason for that is that so many readers of our Web site now come to it "sideways," from search engines or links on blogs. So a headline built around a play on words might not turn up in a search on that subject, no matter how relevant to the search the story is. That means headlines on the Web site need to be much more straightforward and written in the traditional subject-verb-object syntax.


Hanover, N.H.: What is your background/experience? How long have you been doing this job? In my experience, copy editors are the unsung heroes of newspaper journalism. How do you maintain morale, reward good performance, maintain a reliable check on what you are doing?

Don Podesta: I've been in journalism for 36 years starting in college. I've been a police reporter, copy editor, layout editor, assignment editor, a foreign correspondent (South America) news editor,and senior editor in charge of technology, research and computer-assisted reporting. That's what I like about working at The Post: One is never bored. You're quite right that copy editors are often the unsung heroes of the newsroom. Part of my job is to make sure they don't remain unsung. Keeping up morale for people who work nights, holidays and weekends, often anonymously, is not easy. Making opportunities for copy editors to try other things, involving them in important projects, providing training and rewarding them with raises are among the management tools available to help with that.


Baileys Crossroads, Va.: "Lay" and "lie" are different words. Even in the sports section, there's no excuse for a paper of The Post's national standing to run stories about people "laying" around waiting for things to happen. Please stop this. Now. Thank you.

Don Podesta: You are absolutely correct, and we should not be making errors like that.


Rockville, Md.: If I understand correctly, the reporter does NOT write the headline. Why is that? Sometimes the headline does not seem consistent with the main points that the reporter was trying to get across. It seems like the reporter is the best person to write the headline. Why am I wrong?

Don Podesta: There's a certain assembly-line aspect to producing a newspaper. A reporter is out covering a beat, conducting interviews, etc. for one story. By the time the page on which the story is to appear has been designed -- which is what determines the size and shape of the headline and the number of lines -- the reporter is on to other things or is off work for the day. Copy editors handle multiple stories and they are on the job at night, when the pages are made up. Also, it's best for a fresh set of eyes to read the story and make an independent determination about what the story wants to say. A writer who might be off the mark in constructing the body of the story -- and everyone needs an editor -- is apt to repeat errors in a headline. When I worked at a small newspaper where reporters were pressed into service to write headlines, we wrote each others' headlines, not our own.


Anonymous: Do you ever hire people who don't have a full journalism background? I was a copy editor for my college daily and enjoyed it much more than reporting. Since then I've had several long-term writing jobs in the IT field, but I don't often get the chance to do the substantive, quick-turnaround editing at which I excel (according to my bosses). Does The Post ever use part-time or fill-in people?

Don Podesta: Rarely. And in the current economic climate for newspapers, finding jobs without previous newsroom experience is going to be even more difficult, I'm sorry to say.


Eugene, Ore.: Hi Don, you may not be the guy to handle this, but you're the one here today so ...

Like almost all newspaper readers, I hate jumps. Now with the invention of (one of the best examples of online journalism) we don't have to suffer, page, turn, look and search for the continuation of stories we want to read completely. But ... the practice continues.

I've heard that the reason stories jump online is because of some glitch in the publishing software. Ok. So fix it! Failing that (probably expensive solution), can I suggest you steal an idea from the NY Times?

They have a new system there and one of the nice tweaks is a link that allows readers to see the entire story on one page! It's good!

Can't y'all figure out how to do that here? It can't be much more difficult than the link you use to format stories for the printer.

How about it?


Don Podesta: Thanks for the suggestion. We'll look into it.


Arlington, Va.: I hope you can settle a bet for me. (A Dick Van Arsdale bobblehead rides on the outcome.) My friend claims that The Post would never hire a graduate of Camelback High School. I say that's poppycock. Which of us is right?

Don Podesta: Camelback High School in Phoenix? Aside from the fact that Camelback was my own high school's archrival, I can't think of any reason a graduate from that school would be blackballed. Why do I think you might be a ringer?


Clarksville, Md.: I saw the phrase "go easy on the crap" in the Health section Tuesday. I was put off by the slang usage. Am I behind the times?

Don Podesta: I'm sorry you were offended. We try to avoid using that kind of language in the paper.


Columbia, Md.: I recently obtained my BA in English literature and would like to become a copy editor at a newspaper. What next?

Don Podesta: Approach small- to medium-sized local papers and ask whether there is a copy editing test you can take. If you worked for your college paper, a portfolio of clips would help. Most newspapers don't require entry-level editors to have degrees in journalism, but they do require experience. If you have none yet, the best way to get in the door is to demonstrate that you have a knack and a passion for editing and can learn on the job quickly. But that would preclude most large metro dailies as a starting point.


Bowie, Md.: I often see possessive errors in the Sports section. For example, I see "Joe Gibbs's team," instead of "Joe Gibbs' team." Also, is correct grammar thrown out the window when you're trying to fit a story into a space? A lot of times, there are run on sentences or fragments, but the point is still conveyed though.

Don Podesta: No throwing correct grammar out the window here. The only time we would willfully use incorrect grammar is for effect in a column or feature story where such use is part of the story or helps convey the point of the story. But it would be clear to the reader that it is being used as a literary device, and not that the writers and editors don't know better.


Annapolis, Md.: We produce the Tribruin, Broadneck High School's student paper. Our headlines tend to be boring ("Broadneck gets award"; "Students take test") or goofy ("Leatherbury lays down the law"). With most stories, it's naturally tempting to use the school name or "students" as the subject. How can we make our headlines and decks more interesting?

Don Podesta: Making headlines interesting is a challenge for us, too. Constraints of time and space often leave copy editors with little room to be creative. For headlines on features, we strive to be entertaining as well as informative; we encourage wordplay without falling back on groaner puns. The one rule of thumb I would suggest you pass on to your student editors is to have them ask themselves when they've written a headline but before they've send it on to be typeset: "Are these the very best words to get a reader interested in this story? Would I read a story with this headline on it?"


Washington, D.C.: What standard does The Post follow concerning foreign names of institutions or universities? Do copy editors always try to come up with an English-equivalent name? How much time would they spend on a translation (or is this strictly the reporter's responsibility)? Or does The Post always use the foreign name as it stands?

Also, when and how does The Post acknowledge that a foreign government has officially changed what it calls a city (Bombay to Mumbai) or country (Burma to Myanmar)?

Don Podesta: It's a bit of a mix. Where names of places and institutions have long-established English translations, we use them. A prime example was our decision to write it Turin, not Torino during the most recent Winter Olympics. Similarly, in our usage it's Brazil, not Brasil, as it's spelled in Portuguese. For most foreign place names we take our lead from the National Geographic Society Atlas. For universities we would translate: University of Buenos Aires, not Universidad de Buenos Aires.


Anonymous: Mr. Podesta,

Why is it that the general media, The Post included, uses grammatically correct English word order (adjective-noun) to describe different types of fighters (crime fighters, freedom fighters, street fighters, prize fighters, etc.), yet when the story concerns jet-propelled military aircraft built to perform the aerial combat mission, these aircraft are almost always described using the ungrammatical construction "fighter jets" (noun modifying a plural adjective)?

The correct term is "jet fighter" (short for "jet-propelled fighter"). "Fighter jets" makes as much sense as "fighter streets," "fighter crimes," "fighter prizes," etc.

Don Podesta: Hmmm. I'll have to look into that. I sense you're right because I don't believe we would write "bomber jets."


Leesburg, Va.: It would be wonderful if you could spread the word to your editors that the past tense of the verb "to lead" is spelled "led" ... not "lead." I cringe every time I see this error in The Post, which occurs regularly. For example, in today's Post the caption under the photo on page A12 is: "Elizabeth V. Lodal has lead Thomas Jefferson high school for six years." AGHH! This is basic grammar. Please spread the word. Thanks.

Don Podesta: Will do (I suspect I just did). Thanks.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Do your copy editors write the headlines for the blog entries, Specifically, Marc Fisher's blog entries? I'm trying to understand why his entry discusses Herndon's voters rejection of illegal immigration but the headline only refers to immigration, as if there is no differences between the terms.

Don Podesta: Our copy editors at the newspaper do not write the headlines for blogs on our Web site. When we export our stories as they have appeared in print, the headline is often picked up on the Web site, but it can be changed by the web producers, who are physically in a different location from The Post's newsroom.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, I'm an editor too, and I have high respect for the copy editors at The Post (and their headlines, too). I'm curious about the term "undocumented immigrants" -- what does it mean? It sounds like an immigrant who lost a piece of paper or something. Why don't you use "illegal immigrants"? I suppose it's because some people find it pejorative, but it is more clear than "undocumented." (BTW, I'm a Spanish-speaking supporter of increased immigrant rights ... and also a supporter of clear language!)

Don Podesta: This has been a hot-button issue. To many "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" sounds like a euphemism. Here's what our manual of style says about that:

"When used to describe immigrants, this is a euphemism that obscures an important fact -- that they are in this country illegally. In general, use illegal immigrant (but not illegal alien. The word alien is repugnant to some people). Terms such as undocumented worker may be used for the sake of variety. Despite what Webster's says, do not use illegal as a noun, as in Jimenez is an illegal."

That said, my own personal belief is that over time "undocumented" is more accurate. We've had amnesties in the past, and there are bills in Congress now addressing the status of immigrants. Someone here illegally one day can be here legally the next. But not having papers means not having papers.


Greenbelt, Md.: I find it ironic that newspapers - specifically newspaper headlines - use such bad grammar. Each day on your Web site you have headlines such as "Opponents of Illegal Immigration React Angrily." Isn't is more correct to write "Opponents of Illegal Immigration Angrily React?" Or "After Protests backlash Grows," instead of "Backlash Grows After Protests." And also, would you tell your reporters that "impact" is not a verb and "closure" means to bring finality to a situation rather than physically shutting something down?

Don Podesta: You are right that "impact" is a noun and not a verb. On "closure," our dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition) supports its use to mean a closing or shutting down of anything -- and offers "cloture" as shutting off parliamentary debate. Not sure I agree with you that the headlines you cite are ungrammatical. More of a matter of cadence -- how it sounds to the ear.


Fairfax , Va.: Hi and thanks for chatting,

What is the best headline you have read this week?

Don Podesta: "Pistil-Packing Thieves Just Uproot and Leave" on a story about about plant thefts.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Podesta--

I teach professional writing courses for the University of Maryland. My students don't believe me when I tell them that a good editor is God's greatest gift to a writer.

As one on the front lines of communicating life-or-death info to the world, how do you help professional writers appreciate the help that editors like you give them?


Don Podesta: By saving them from embarrassing factual and grammatical errors and improving their prose to make their stories clearer and more readable. Beyond that, a newspaper copy editor writes the headline that gets a reader to pay attention to the writer's work in the first place.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why should individual newspapers select among various softer sounding words rather than just using the immigration terminology as it is defined in the U.S. code?

Don Podesta: When appropriate we use official terminology, but that does not mean we let the government edit the newspaper.


Silver Spring, Md.: Why not tell the reader from Bowie that Gibbs's is not an error at all, and then explain why?

Don Podesta: Thank you for pointing this out. Gibbs's is correct, according to our style because:

Use 's to form the possessive of singular nouns, proper names and nicknames ending in a sounded s: Lucas's new movie, the boss's secretary, the Boss's big concert, the chorus's big moment, the lass's skirt, Philip Glass's opera, Mars's anger, Zeus's wife, James's book, Dr. Seuss's books. But use the apostrophe alone for ancient and biblical proper names of more than one syllable ending in -es: Demosthenes' orations, Xerxes' conquests. (But: Gonzales's nomination, Frances's recipe.)


Washington, D.C.: Please explain how you decide what stories go on the front page. Why are the headlines so big? How do your people do it? Do they have very much time?

Don Podesta: Big question! Settle back for a long answer. Each department (National Foreign, Metro, Business, Style and Sports) pitches stories for the front page at a meeting we hold every day at 2 p.m. The editor running the paper that day, usually the executive editor or the managing editor, runs through the list and announces his early leanings about which of the 20 or more stories that have been offered he wants to look at more closely. Obviously on big news days (Katrina, the pope dying, election night) some of these choices are givens. The top editor and the editor on the news desk designing the front page for the next day consult as they read the stories and winnow the list down to six. Later-breaking news is considered as well. Around 6 p.m. a draft of the front page is taken into a second meeting, where the stories that have been drawn onto the page are discussed. Everyone around the table gets to weigh in, and often changes are made based on those suggestions. What we look for in front page stories? A good mix of important news, relevant to our readers lives and at least one lighter, entertaining, surprising piece of writing to give the page variety and engage as many readers as possible.


Washington, D.C.: How many complaints do you get about the puns in headlines? I enjoy them and think are an encouragement to read the article.

Don Podesta: Surprisingly, not many. Wordsmiths by nature enjoy plays on words, but we do have to guard against too much of a good thing.


Fairfax, Va.: Hope I am not too late. Please explain the difference between "more than" and "over" and the proper uses for each. I see over used all the time when I believe more than is the correct phrase. Thanks.

Don Podesta: "More than" refers to quantity. "Over" can as well, but since it also means (1) to be physically above a point in space or (2) to be finished (as in "The game is over") "more than" is the better term.


Arlington, Va.: Do you feel that you're under enormous pressure in the online chat to ensure you aren't making grammatical or typographical errors? (Not to impose any, just curious!)

Don Podesta: Yes, but knowing that I'm an imperfect human being, I'm sure I'm making my share of typos.


Washington, D.C.: As anyone can see on the Saturday Free for All letters page, readers are upset at the many wrong word choices that pepper the paper. Examples: isles for aisles, teaming for teeming, etc. The most horrific appeared earlier this year in the Sunday magazine, with a reference to Stalin's forced removal of residents from "the Caucuses" rather than "the Caucasus." Are your copy editors simply editing by spell check -- any properly spelled word will do, whether it's the correct one or not?? (I e-mailed the magazine editor about the Caucasus blooper and never got a response. I specifically wondered if the writer got it wrong or, worse, the copy editor made it wrong.)

Don Podesta: See answer just posted about imperfect human beings. It's not that our editors don't know better. Catching every error in the equivalent of a medium-sized novel in a matter of hours every day is impossible. But it remains our ideal.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Don! Thanks for doing this chat. Without getting overly specific, I work for a local education-based organization. Recently a student newspaper at a highly regarded Ivy League school used the name of our organization in a headline. The headline suggested some association between our nonprofit and an illegal service which we have absolutely no affiliation with. The article went on to explain that there was no association however the headline was extremely misleading. The editor refused to change it saying that "In an effort to help readers understand the subject of a story, often headlines must be somewhat less specific." I know I'm not giving you all the details here, but what other recourse does an organization have in these cases and what rule of thumb does the editor go by in making these decisions? Does this sound right to you?

Don Podesta: While true that headlines often must be less specific in order to convey the overall theme of the story or because of space constraints, it's indefensible to write a headline that creates a wrong impression -- especially if that impression is detrimental to the subject of the article.


Columbia, Md.: To the reader who doesn't like the "paging" in the Web version of the Post: The "Print This Article" link leads to a non-paged version of the article.


Don Podesta: Thank you for pointing this out.


Hays, Kan.: Hi, Mr. Podesta:

Local headline about a high school athlete with the last name of Munsch who broke a record: "New record to Munsch on."

Ugghh. When does the cheese-factor on headline writing go too far?

Your "Pistil-Packing Thieves..." example seemed to have a nice balance of cleverness, cheesiness and news value to capture readers' attention.

But is there some official standard headline writers are held to or is the standard more of a gut check?

Don Podesta: That just doesn't cut it. For a pun to be appropriate in a headline, it has to be consonant with the tone of the story, and the pun has to work on all levels. The athlete isn't chewing on his new records, so that one goes nowhere.


Richmond, Va.: What do you think about the San Antonio Express-News' decision to ban puns in its headlines? For me, writing good puns was one of the best parts of being a copy editor.

Don Podesta: It's not good to ban language from the paper. Avoiding cliches, loaded language, off-color words is the right thing to do, but you should never say never because there will come a time when an exception is needed.


Munich, Germany: Regarding "Pistil Packers" and snappy headlines being a disservice to readers, don't most Internet searches do a full-text search? Most Internet pages also have a keyword field that search engines use.

Don Podesta: Some search engines hit headlines and abstracts.


Alexandria, Va.: Should up to date be left unhyphenated when it appears on its own? Or is that not up-to-date?

Don Podesta: I would write it "My journal is up to date," but "This is an up-to-date list." Hyphenate the compound adjectives.


Woodbridge, Va.: How do your friends and family feel around you? Do they fear you correcting their grammar? How do YOU feel when you hear someone use the wrong words or terms or general bad grammar in conversation? Do your friends' kids come to you to edit their term papers? What are your pet peeves in reporters' copy or grammar in general?

Don Podesta: You mean because I always want to edit the sign at the supermarket checkout line to read "10 items or fewer," as opposed to "or less?" They're mostly used to it by now -- I think. My grandfather was a newspaper editor, and he used to correct my grandmother and everyone else at the dinner table, so I grew up with that mindset, I'm afraid.


Arlington, Va.: Is it difficult to copy edit for columns and articles written in a more leisurely tone, like in the Style section? Are there different style standards for different sections to compensate for contractions, slang and the like?

Don Podesta: I would argue that it's easier. You can let the writer have her or his voice without getting too uptight about it and those kinds of stories give you a much bigger canvas to paint on when it comes time to playing with the words.


Potomac, Md.: It seems that sometimes you go out of the way to use a pun. It seems as the desire to appear to be clever outweighs choosing words that are more accurate. Any comment?

Don Podesta: We never want to overreach or we risk pun-ishing the reader.


Baltimore Md.: Is there still such a position as rewrite man/woman on newspapers? I ask, because in one obit for Louis Rukeyser, he said he never had to fight writer's block because, "I was chief rewrite man for the Baltimore Evening Sun back when it put out nine editions a day." That got me wondering if the position still existed, or whether reporters write their own stories in their entirety now, which are then edited by copy editors.

Don Podesta: Not so much at the newspaper, but we're doing something similar to that in our Continuous News Department, which is the section that feeds breaking news written by our reporters to the Web site in real time.


Don Podesta: Well, I see I've reached the end of my time. Thanks to you all for your interesting, engaging, smart questions. Sorry I couldn't get to all of them.


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