51 things I’ve learned after 50 years in the editor’s chair

By Rich Peck*

Photo of Rich Peck and cover of Speaking Faith

Rick Peck is editor of the 7th edition of RCC handbook, Speaking Faith: the Essential Handbook for Religion Communicators.

Photo of Rich Peck: A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

  1. Don’t overestimate the amount of information readers have and don’t underestimate their intelligence.

  2. When you tell people you would rather not have line-ups or grip-and-grin photos, you will get line-ups and grip-and-grin photos. Use the photo you are given. It means more to the people to see their photo than it does to the editor who dreads using stilted photos.

  3. Mentally editing the grammar of television commercials, songs, and newspaper articles is one of the liabilities of the position.

  4. Avoid gender-specific words such as fireman, policeman, and mankind. Use plural nouns to avoid gender-specific pronouns such as his/her and he/she. Use a non-sexist word finder.

  5. Subheads can make grey pages sparkle. Adding blurbs can add interest. Also consider numbers and bullets.

  6. Avoid jumps (continuing article on a page in the back of the magazine). Avoid widows (single word at the top of a column) and orphans (single word at the bottom of a column).

  7. Label headlines without verbs cause readers to skip pages. Don’t use the word “and” in a head; use a comma. Use single quotes and numerals in headlines.

  8. If you edit a writer’s manuscript, send it back to the author before publishing. The practice avoids future complaints about distorting copy. If you write an article about someone, let him or her check the facts, but maintain control of the contents.

  9. Don’t put the Associated Press Stylebook back in the bookshelf. Keep it next to your keyboard. You can vary from the stylebook, but you need a good reason to do so. I capitalize Baptism and Holy Communion because these are the two sacraments for the United Methodist Church. The stylebook says only Holy Communion should be capitalized. Of course, you may also use some other stylebook.

  10. Authors are not good proof readers and spellcheck can mislead you. Recruit at least one talented proof reader (two would be better).

  11. Avoid unnecessary alphabet gumbo. Some writers will use a sentence such as: “The General Commission on United Methodist Men (GCUMM) opened their session...” A later sentence will say, “The GCUMM took action...” There is no need for this; the second reference can say “The commission took action...” You may also use a different word such as “agency” instead of “commission.”

  12. The use of a dateline saves space and adds clarity. Some editors say the use of a dateline misleads readers to believe the author was in that city. Readers are smart enough to know by the context whether the author was actually in the city or only writing about an event in that city. There is no need to repeat the name of the city in the article.

  13. Adding adjectives frequently clutters sentences and they are often subjective; use sparingly.

  14. Use precise descriptions: Avoid: “The young child.” Instead: “The five-year-old boy.”

  15. Avoid using the same words in a single paragraph but don’t search the Thesaurus for a seldom used word.

  16. Avoid unnecessary words: “10 p.m. at night.” Use lower case a.m. and p.m.

  17. Don’t include subjective observations in news stories. It’s fine to quote someone who says, “It was a spine-tingling speech.” It’s not OK for the author of the news story to do so.

  18. When you can’t come up with the right adjective, try hyphenating words: “I was in an I-can’t-think-of-the-right-word situation while writing this sentence.”

  19. People who are elected from local churches to annual conferences are “members” (not delegates). People elected by annual conferences to General Conference are “delegates.”

  20. Reverend is an adjective that requires the word “the” (The Rev. John Smith). Second reference is a matter of style. Some will use Mr. Smith. I simply use the last name (Smith).

  21. United Methodist News Service always inserts the word “regional” after the word “annual” as in the New York Annual (regional) Conference. Their news releases are sometimes used in secular newspapers, so that makes sense. I write for United Methodists, so I don’t follow that practice. On second reference there is no need to capitalize annual conference or jurisdictional conference; however, since General Conference is the actual name of the conference, it should be capitalized. I generally avoid the term central conferences as most United Methodists are not familiar with the term. Saying “annual conferences outside the United States” is sufficient.

  22. The correct title is “The United Methodist Church,” however, I write for a United Methodist audience so I use “UMC.” If I use the full title I always capitalize The United Methodist Church.

  23. Capitalize titles before the name and lower case after the name (Pastor John Smith) (John Smith, pastor of First UMC). Lower case titles when a name is not used (president of the board).

  24. The word “over” refers to spatial relationships. Use “more than” when describing numbers (More than 200 people attended the concert). Don’t use “more than” if an odd number is used. Don’t write: “More than 27 people.” Write: “Twenty-seven people...”

  25. While most writers know to spell out numbers one through nine except when referring to ages, the rule changes when numbers are in the same sentence (Attendance at the committee ranged from 9 to 11 people).

  26. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination. If you use the word “nation” specify the nation to which you are making reference.

  27. Cutlines for photos should be written in the present tense.

  28. Know the difference between there, their, they’re; its, it’s; affect, effect; that, which; lie, lay; insure, ensure; principle, principal; compose, comprise, constitute; and compliment, complement.

  29. Don’t use postal abbreviations for states; use Associated Press abbreviations; save postal abbreviations for postal addresses. Some newspapers allow postal abbreviations in headlines.

  30. No matter how many times you edit an article you will think of a way to improve the copy after it has been published.

  31. Do not use the word “between” when there are more than two people involved. Funds are not divided between agencies. The funds are divided among agencies.

  32. Capitalize Bible; lowercase biblical. Old Testament is a Christian term; Hebrew Bible is appropriate use for the Jewish community.

  33. A historic event is an important occurrence. A historical event is an event that happened in history.

  34. Carefully consider your lede (journalistic spelling for the lead paragraph). The standard lede answers the questions of who, what, where, and when. You may also begin an article with a quotation followed by an explanation of who said it, where and when. A Wall Street Journal lede tells a story about an individual followed by an explanation of how and why that person had that experience.

  35. “Comprise” means to consist of or contain. The whole comprises the parts; the parts compose the whole.

  36. Use “person” when referring to a single individual. Use “people” when referring to more than one person.

  37. “Who” is a pronoun referring to human beings and named animals. It is never the object. “Whom” is used when a person is the object.

  38. Collective nouns take singular verbs and pronouns: congregation, class, group, team.

  39. “OK” – not “okay.” “Adviser” – not “advisor.” “All right” – not “alright.”

  40. Use an active voice: “Students did volunteer work” instead of: “The work was done by volunteers.”

  41. Be consistent with active or passive voice. If Bill “says” then Jane also “says” (not “said”).

  42. You can usually get rid of the word “that” and “which.” Change: “The Titanic, which was a huge ocean liner, sank in 1912 to: “The Titanic, a huge ocean liner, sank in 1912.

  43. Use strong verbs. Change: “The commission agenda has to deal with organizational details” to: “The commission will suggest new forms of organizations.”

  44. The question is: “Where are you?” The question is never, “Where are you at?”

  45. Avoid split infinitives. Don’t separate the word “to” from the verb. Correct: “He wanted to preach an inspiring sermon.” Incorrect: He want to inspiringly preach a sermon.”

  46. Learn transitive and intransitive verbs (transitive requires an object, intransitive does not). Sit, lie and rise are intransitive verbs. Set, lay and raise are transitive. (I sit) (I set the table).

  47. “Less” and “fewer” are not interchangeable. “Less” refers to amounts that form one whole. “Fewer” refers to anything that can be counted. For example, it is “less money” and “fewer dollars.”

  48. Use the appropriate verb even when it sounds wrong. “None of the seats was empty.” None means no single one.

  49. Avoid use of the exclamation mark. Save it for occasions when it is warranted.

  50. An easy test to know which pronoun to use with compound subjects is to drop the first word. For example: “Jack and me wanted to go hiking.” When you drop “Jack,” the sentence reads “Me wanted to go hiking.” You know you made a mistake.

  51. Use the subjunctive case to describe conditions contrary to fact. “If I were smarter, I would not be an editor.”

*Rich Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference and currently serves as communications coordinator for the General Commission on United Methodist Men. He is a retired staff member of the UM Publishing House; during the 25 years he was with that agency, he served as editor of Circuit Rider, Newscope, the Daily Christian Advocate, the International Christian Digest, the United Methodist Book of Resolutions and Abingdon books. Rich also served as communications director for Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the New York Area (New York and Troy Annual Conferences), and the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.

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