SI's copy chief, Ed Clarke, tends to be precise. Some might even call him picky. "Our best copyreaders and proofreaders are great nitpickers," says Clarke. "They love to argue about shades of meaning. They'll track a word through five different dictionaries to get it right." Words are the main business of the 10 copyreaders and 20 proofreaders who make up Clarke's copy room staff. It is their job to see to it that SI's stories are grammatically correct, logically and clearly developed, and—perhaps trickiest of all—consistent in style.
"Style," says Clarke, "means the distinctive manner in which a publication treats the language. In our case, of course, sports phraseology is a prime concern." For example, he says, "SI's style is to write as solid words a lot of sports terms, such as centerfield and lefthander, that are two words or hyphenated in every dictionary." In the past, Clarke had sometimes been hard-pressed to answer the dozens of questions about style that besieged him daily. "Often a line would form next to my desk," he says. "As copy chief, I'm supposed to have all the answers. The trick was to remember how I had answered a certain question the last time around." Finally, Clarke decided to write the definitive style book, one that would detail the way SI should treat sports terminology and deal with good usage in general—in other words, a reference book that would "answer all those damned questions."
Clarke set to work on his opus a year ago. As a starting point, he used a slim style book that had been developed piecemeal by various copy chiefs since the magazine began publishing in 1954. It was riddled with anachronisms and encrusted with handwritten changes. It also was oddly selective; bullfighting was examined in detail, but there was no section on boxing. Writing from notes, memos and memory, and assisted by his deputies, Jill Jar-off and Dick McAdams ("born nit-pickers both," says Clarke), and copyreader Pearl Sverdlin, who was in charge of the production of the manual, Clarke finished his comprehensive 120-page guide last month. And it is still growing.
What is the most common mistake in sports terminology? "Using the term all-American in place of All-America," says Clarke. "An All-America is an amateur athlete voted the best in the nation at his position or event, whereas an all-American is simply, well, a wonderful guy. It's in the book." Yes, it's right there, along with a list of sports clichés, called No-Nos. According to the book, the word recorded should not be used in SI in the context of "Darling recorded his 20th win."
July 13, 1986
Still, Clarke does not demand that his staff follow the book blindly. In the preface he says, "The best copy-editing technique is that which least distracts the reader and most preserves the writer's style and intent.... In any showdown, clarity must be declared the winner over style."