John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The joys of failure

It’s a pity that discussion in comments of the substance of my interview with On the Media has been sidetracked by Robert Knilands, who barged in to vent his spite and resentment about other editors.* But one of his remarks has been productive of thought:

Maybe someday it will dawn on you that John McIntyre is no longer on the copy desk, and that he walked out a failure, with his section a smoldering ruin. All his years of blathering, parsing words, wearing bow ties, and generally acting like a pompous ass were wasted.

Actually, though I am unemployed and looking for ways to do useful work again, I can’t share Mr. Knilands’s perception that I am a failure.

After all, I put in nearly thirty years of good work; though I didn’t catch every error or fix every shortcoming in the stories I edited, on the whole, the papers I worked on were better for my having been there.

Though the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun is drastically diminished, it still functions, and several of the editors I hired continue to work there in other positions, struggling heroically to move the operation into whatever new form it must take to survive.

Beyond that, several of the editors I hired have moved on to work at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Several of my students from Loyola College have also gone on to established positions in journalism. I have every reason to take pride in them.

This blog, the continuation of the one I started at The Sun, has had more than 12,000 visitors since May 1, and many of them have returned repeatedly.

Yes, it was a deep disappointment that I did not get to serve out my professional career at The Sun, with a voice in charting its new course and maintaining its standards, but on the day that I walked out of that newsroom, I did so with the affection and esteem of my colleagues. Call that failure if you will.

As for the bow ties and the pompous assery, that’s just for fun.

*Explanatory note for readers unacquainted with Mr. Knilands’s behavior: I have not, to my knowledge, ever met him, and he has not, to my knowledge, attended any of my workshops on editing. Though public information about him is sketchy, he appears to have worked for a number of newspapers in the Midwest. What is certain is that he has been formally banned from several journalistic discussion boards for his intemperate remarks. He is particularly abusive toward those who turned down his application for employment or who presumed to disagree with him or who are more prominently known in the business than he is. It is possible to entertain the opinion that he is not wired to code.


  1. Congratulations on keeping your civil tongue and your good humor while responding to someone who is obviously a jerk.

  2. If Mr. Knilands is looking for failure, he need go no farther than his nearest mirror. You, on the other hand, are the antithesis of the term.

  3. We never worked together. However, I'm one degree of separation from you -- by way of a mutual acquaintance on the Washington Post foreign desk, where, at 36, I served as the world's oldest intern in 2007. Said acquaintance would not confirm whether you were a pompous ass, but did admit that you were "quite a character." She smiled when she said that, for what it's worth.

    In my short (four years) tenure as a copy editor, I found your missives on "You Don't Say" to be both instructive and entertaining.

    The news business, whether it issues its product on paper or pixels, could use a few more "fossils" on its desks to "parse words." Reporters (like all writers) have a knack for choosing the wrong word on occasion, and a good copy editor can spare them, and the publications that employ them, unnecessary embarrassment.

    As far as the pompous assery goes, I share your views on the martini, at least. Despite your instruction, I have not yet mastered the skill of tying bow tie.

    The Sun is poorer for your absence. I wish you continued success in your future endeavors.

  4. Your response was classy, John, but you're giving this troll far more attention than he deserves.

  5. Ooh, I like that phrase, "not wired to code". Very nice.

  6. I googled 'Robert Knilands' and found lots of references to him being banned from various sites; an interview at which described him as having one of the most "outspoken" voices (you have to admire that choice of adjective) on newspaper design and editing and in which he goes on at length about the failings and 'mistakes' of others (without really specifying the mistakes in question); and a blog / web-site ( - "where the content matters," which I would think was a joke if the guy weren't the way he is) with no design to speak of and practically no content either. I won't bore you with its many technical shortcomings except to say that it breaks almost all the sensible rules of webmastering, and has a Google PR (3) which my 11-year-old nephew would be ashamed of and an Alexa rating so low (no data) its traffic must be almost negative. So forget him - the Internet already has done.

  7. It is the height of class to be able to respond with a voice of truth and gentle humor to pitiful folks who are not wired to code. (I'm a bit self-conscious about that sentence, but hopefully it conveys my appreciation). Hat's off to you!

  8. Patricia the TerseJuly 31, 2009 at 2:29 AM

    I suspect Mr Knilands - whoever or whatever he is - is one sharp short of a key signature.It's clear he has little to add to any conversation that isn't about him. Ignore him: it's difficult to have a battle of wits with the half-witted. Now for something really important. How about a new photograph of you for la Saison d'Ete?

  9. Patricia (lovely name, the same as my darling wife's, whom I sometimes wish would be terse), the phrase I heard was along the lines of "I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed man."

    Retired in Elkridge

  10. We all wish these kind of failures, if these are considered failures.

    My profound respects-

    Steve Pinardi
    (CS Researcher)

  11. Thank you for this post. I am one of those visitors who frequently returns to your blog. I was laid off from my job as a senior designer/copy editor at a midsize newspaper and have struggled with the sense of failure even though I recognize that I did a good job and the people I supervised also did a good job. I, too, walked out with the affection and respect of those I worked with in the newsroom as well as in other departments. And knowing that does help me get through some of the more grim days. (Love the phrase "not wired to code." I know several people who fit the description.)

  12. Some comments from Facebook:

    Lisa McLendon
    RK is very successful in making himself look like the ass when he's attempting to criticize others.

    Wayne C. Countryman
    The world awaits word of Mr. Knilands' accomplishments.

    David Belz
    He's nothing but a mangy sidewinder. Your legacy is assured--and continues to grow.

    Mary Curry
    I know someone who displays the same character defect it seems Mr. K possesses. There seems to be a personality disorder in those who feel the need to publicly denounce others. I believe these people have a deep-rooted hostility that was never addressed and which is misdirected towards those of whom they are jealous.

    Sherry Thien Grother
    So ... he's moved on from Gannett Blog to yours then, huh? Props. Heh. I say, "Try again, troll" ... Heck, I saw you once in Chicago for 45 stinkin' minutes (too short!) and became a fan for life.

    Jeff Price
    I’ve never heard of this creature before and regret that I’m hearing so much about him now, especially as I suspect he is very excited by all the attention. And John” thanks for dressing yourself in bow ties, panama hats and seersucker suits. Marvelous standard. Thanks for sneaking bourbon into the newsroom in the guise of chocolate candies. Most important, thanks for saving me and many others from the embarrassment of inaccuracies, bad grammar, tortured syntax and sometimes sheer drivel. Not you alone, of course, but you and your whole crew.

    Erik Nelson
    I echo Jeff's sentiment, even thought I could only appreciate John's work (and not the bourbon) from a remote bueau for five years. Looking back, I remember many copy editors at other papers, many of whom did not approach their work with the same dedication -- love, even -- that John and his colleagues at the Sun did.

    Jan Leach
    Having known you since the start of your copy desk career, I can say with authority that you've always been passionate about language and accuracy. Readers and your colleagues gained from your commitment. That is not "failure."

    Amy Crawford
    I once told him off on the ACES board, a very long time ago. He is nothing.

    Phil Fisher
    'Not wired to code' -- a fine and artful insult. I, too, was there with you at the start. Copy editing isn't always a career with a lot of upward mobility, but it's hard to imagine a more successful career than yours, or one that's had more influence on the profession generally.