What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Enter key

Picture by Artur Cimoch, freeimages.com

Long ago, at school, there was probably an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, the idea was that one thought meant one paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign to hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for easy, fast editing and writing, and there is nothing wrong with that.

House style… just a waste of time?

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, they are called sub-editors. They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful. Because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.

A sock draw? Surely not

In a week of processing copy, I spotted this in a Daily Mail story:

‘Then there were other non-essential tasks such as watering plants and
sorting out the sock draw which suddenly became urgent priorities
ahead of the essential task they really should be concentrating on.’

Thing is, you reorganise your sock drawER, not your sock draw.
Looked at in context, it’s possible that the mistake was contained in
the original statement from the source of the story, and somehow
slipped past the usually excellent Mail subbing system.

Moral of the story: just because it’s in an email from someone else,
doesn’t mean it’s right.

* First published on Grubstreet

Editors make mistakes, too

I mis-spelt a word on Twitter today – conumdrum, instead of conundrum. Not the end of the world, and in the Twitter flow no one but me noticed (I hope). But it makes me unhappy when I  get things wrong (especially when I do know the right spelling). And that is one of the foundations of editing, I guess: the striving to make things right.