Confessions of a proofreader

Confessions of a proofreader

A real page turner and deep dive into the story behind the stories at the Standard

Jonathan Lazarus, left, and Charlie Zusman at the Jewish Standard.
Jonathan Lazarus, left, and Charlie Zusman at the Jewish Standard.

I read the Jewish Standard faithfully, some might say religiously, every week, cover to cover.

But, dear reader, I don’t read the Standard the way you do, for enjoyment, enlightenment, opinion, entertainment, guidance, or connection to the community.

I read it because I’m paid to, as a sort of last line of defense (sometimes faulty) before the publication reaches your hands or pixelates to your screen. I’m one of two proofreaders, along with long-time colleague Charlie Zusman, whose names you will not find on our masthead, who labor mightily on alternating Tuesdays and Wednesdays trying to eliminate or at least minimize typos, punctuation errors, style inconsistencies, factual faux pas, and other barriers between you and the stories. (I also dabble unofficially in headlines and captions.)

Notice the sentence preceding the parenthesis. I didn’t delete the comma before the last “and” in the series. One of the Standard’s style variations, or idiosyncratic preferences, is to use what’s called the Oxford comma, largely going against the punctuation grain. There are others, too, and speaking about parenthesis (not brackets, a whole different genre), we prefer deploying them around the first three digits of telephone numbers and to set off the districts and party affiliations of officials, as in Representative (not Rep.) Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J. 5th Dist.). And we also spell out titles in full before a name, such as senator, governor, assemblywoman, congressman, and so on. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Lazarus wrote “etc.” Against the rule! I fixed it!]

Does this make us distinctive or slightly disconcerting? We hope the former, but there are still many more examples of style modifications I could cite, all of which are undertaken and implemented to make the Standard as consistent and reassuring a read as possible. Recently, editor Joanne Palmer, our style decisor, decided to eliminate “N.Y.” after cities in Rockland County. (I prefer the dateline with periods to just plain NY.) It was felt our readers were geographically sophisticated enough to know what’s where, and the move would also lend a more regional sensibility to the publication’s NORTH JERSEY/ROCKLAND designation on the cover.

Every Friday, like clockwork and since 1931, the Standard has published an eclectic mix of articles featuring religious and secular subjects, both weighty or whimsical, fashionable or frum. Our readers range from chasidic to non-observant, from varying streams of Judaism, spanning the gulf from charedi (sometimes) to secular. The audience is animated, opinionated, engaged, and passionately concerned with all matters affecting Judaism in the diaspora and the State of Israel.

Standard editors take great care in developing, writing, and selecting stories for the weekly presentation. We know that nothing can be more annoying than a typo, poor grammar, syntactical inversions, punctuation sloppiness, articles that jump (continue) to the wrong page, dropped lines, miscasting a blond as a blonde, or posting a recipe with the incorrect amount of horseradish. We even check the crossword puzzle to see if clues and grid match, and subject Banji Ganchrow’s column to a chuckles test. (It always passes.)

These responsibilities weigh heavily on me every other Tuesday at 11 a.m., when I begin my proofreading shift (or trick, as we used to say in the business). The tools of the trade adorn the desk in an office I share with associate editor Larry Yudelson. They include the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, a door-stopper at 611 pages and broken down into chapters on religion, fashion, sports, and media law, among other categories. Resting beside it is the Standard’s own “bible” of transliteration guidelines and master words for Hebrew, Jewish, and Yiddish orthography. It has five listings alone for “chag,” five for Kiddush, eight for Shabbat, two for the Warsaw Ghetto, plus entries for parshiot and tractates.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary Tenth Edition (I’m still old school enough to value its coffee- and water-stained pages) sits next to the computer where I google answers to the questions that always seem to crop up during a news cycle. I use a red ball-point pen (goodbye forever Eagle #2 grease model with string peeler from my Star-Ledger days) because paginators Deborah Herman and Bob O’Brien and production chief Jerry Szubin prefer this hue over blue or black, not that I think it makes deciphering my scrawls and symbols any easier. And yes, paper clips, lots of them, are traded between proofreaders and paginators as the day moves on. We also make sure all paper is properly recycled.

But enough of housekeeping details!

The Star-Ledger’s night editing crew in the mid 1980s. Jon is front right, in the striped shirt, and Charlie is in the back right; his shirt has checks.

Usually, the first proofs I receive are Calendar listings and Briefly Local items assembled by community editor Beth Janoff Chananie. Readers have come to rely on our roundup of services and activities at shuls, federations, and organizations throughout Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Hudson counties. The Calendar appears in agate type, smaller by a few points than text, and proofing it requires extra focus. Briefly Local stories typically run with pictures of the principals involved and accurate photo IDs are crucial. I always marvel at how much Jewish communal activity there is to report. And I also know as I take these proofs to the small display room and mount them on wall racks that later stories or new ads will send updated versions of these pages my way again.

Putting out a paper, whether a daily or a weekly, in broadsheet or tabloid format, is always more than a one-off. The process is fluid and open to constant revision, a path that never is linear but ultimately leads to completion through its circularity. Although the computer has replaced the clatter of typewriters and the Standard’s fresh houseplants thrive in an atmosphere once wreathed in cigarette smoke, a newsroom is still a newsroom, and the Standard’s generates a heartbeat that is its own.

I glance at the clock and it’s nearly 2 in the afternoon. Nate Bloom’s dishy Nosh column has arrived for Page 4. I quickly become immersed in the exploits and yichus of Tribe members in the sports and entertainment worlds and need to remind myself to read for typos, not tidbits. The quote that appears each week in the upper right corner of the page won’t be chosen until the next day as closing time nears. Joanne and Larry take particular care in selecting what they consider the newsiest, funniest, or most sardonic or ironic statement as it relates to Jewish happenings of the week.

By now, ads and space allocation have been negotiated between publisher Jamie Janoff, Joanne, advertising director Natalie Jay, and ad coordinator Jane Carr (just the first round really). The pace quickens for me as proofs of display stories begin landing for the front of the book. Lois Goldrich, Abigail Klein Leichman, Larry, and Joanne are regular contributors and I must be sensitive to each writer’s voice, not just dogged in the pursuit of errors. Their copy is clean, absorbing, and flows easily. And the addition of the First Person feature has brought new narrative elements to the mix, allowing someone like me to contribute an article like this.

But the centerpiece remains the cover story, usually written by Joanne to serve as the week’s in-depth look at an organization, trend, personality, or social issue. Examples of tikkun olam, chesed, and tzedakah abound in these reports. I know the workday is drawing to a close when the cover story arrives for the initial read. It will return for a second check tomorrow, this time with captions included, and then the proofs will be hung on the wall. Jamie, Joanne, Jerry, Larry, and account executives Brenda Sutcliffe and Robin Frizzell and I will circle the tiny room at different times (or in lockstep), looking for errors large and small.

It’s now nearly 6 p.m. and the wide-open editorial and opinion pages are ready for proofing, but my eyes and focus aren’t. I still must contend with rush-hour traffic on Route 4 and the Parkway to reach home in West Orange, eat dinner, relax a bit, and get some sleep. Better to read them when I’m fresh in the morning. And yes, when I arrive bright and early the next day, there they are, augmented by Jewish World articles, obituaries, Banji’s column, arts or cultural critiques, and health, business, and real estate copy. Deborah and Bob sure stayed busy composing additional pages after I left.

Fueled by several coffees, I plunge into the opinion section. Once again, I must exercise extreme objectivity when reading columnists. The Standard prides itself on offering a spectrum of viewpoints, and I don’t have the luxury or license to say “Really, Shmuley [Boteach]” or “Spot on, Shammai [Englemayer]” — except to myself. (Notice those nifty brackets mentioned earlier are back.) This particular morning, however, I linger over Joseph Kaplan’s “On My Mind” piece and take the liberty of extending the headline, since it came up short. I execute both a play on words and an aesthetic upgrade in seconds.

Over the next few hours, a sustained burst of energy from all clears away the backlog. Only Larry’s Page 3 vignettes remain. It’s noon when they arrive and the wait proves worth it. Funny, offbeat, and irreverent, they seem to put a point on the week’s package. Bob and Deborah are now simultaneously composing ads, making corrections, and exporting pages to the printer. Visions of a deserted Route 4 begin dancing in my head. As always, I feel pretty good about what the staff has accomplished and my own role in the effort. As I leave our River Edge offices, I savor my small triumph of the week, catching the misidentification of New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman as a quarterback. (That position belongs to Tom Brady, although Edelman did play it at Kent State.)

But there’s always counterpoise. Just as quickly, I remember that I let a wrong folio line and a few typos slip by. And that just a few weeks ago I miscorrected the new spelling of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, back to the old Kiev. Obviously, I didn’t get the memo on that one. Even though Charlie and I have amassed 80 years of newspaper editing experience between us, stuff still gets through. I mentally replay the cautionaries of my English teachers and early editors as I make my way down Route 4 and quickly come to terms with the fact that it’s never going to be a blemish-free process, but to keep striving for it.

And now, dear reader, the paper is literally in your hands.

Jonathan E. Lazarus, a retired editor at the Star-Ledger, does read for pleasure. Right now, he’s devouring an Elmore Leonard collection of short stories.

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