John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Edit twice, publish once

Back when I used to be somebody, spreading fear and terror while winning glory and wealth as the head of a newspaper copy desk, I harangued people about the importance of editing. They didn’t listen then, either.

But if you need persuasion, consider this example.

Today the Web site Inside Higher Ed reports the embarrassing developments with the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is used by professionals and students as the guidebook for their papers. The corrections that have come out since the first printing include “four pages of ‘nonsignificant typographical errors’ and five pages correcting errors in content and problems with sample papers” (emphasis added).

The APA is bringing out a corrected second printing of the manual but is making buyers of the defective first printing pay for the corrected version, which looks churlish.

Addressing the error-riddled edition, Mary Lynn Skutley, editorial director for APA books, explained that the manual was “very complicated to put together.” Indeed. So are newspapers, and magazines, and Web sites, and other books. Complicated, and liable to contain errors.

That is why you might want to engage a competent copy editor for your project before publication, and allow him or her the time and resources to get the job done right the first time.


  1. Well, if the scale is linear, we should get "Edit three times, don't publish at all." Ya gotta admit that sounds bad.

  2. It would be better, though, if editors followed the carpenters' rule: "Measure twice, cut once."

    That said, readers seldom complain that a story is too short. Writers never complain that other writers' stories are cut to short. An investigative series that left readers demanding more would be a marvel.

  3. I am reading John Barry's "The Great Influenza." It's a very interesting book and, alas, mostly well-written. What a good copy editor could have done with it...

  4. poor copy-editing is also due to the embarassing low fees that are paid to people who are supposed to do the job, at least in the freelance world. when I started I read a text three times. the first time I edited the text in its electronic form, then accepted all the corrections I had made, then read the purged text again and finally read the galleys. after that I was rather confident that I had caught all the errors. when my clients proposed to read the text only once to save money, I declined, as one can hardly be sure to do it properly in one go.

    [if what you've just read sounds weird, it's due to the fact that I am not a native english speaker. nevertheless I wanted to share my thoughts with you. - of course I'm grateful for any suggestions as to how I could improve!]

  5. As a contract editor for faculty and grad students large university's School of Social Work, I can vouch for the despair into which the APA Publication manual flings us. "Very complicated" is nothing but a lame euphemism. It inspires tantrums. Whoever indexed it needs to be summarily punished. It's a thoroughgoing disaster from start to finish. And darned if I'll PAY for the "corrected" edition, which will no doubt introduce as many more errors and as much confusion as already exist in the current version. They should pay ME for the pain of having to use it.

  6. "Back When I Used To Be Somebody." That would make a great title for a sequel to Anne Tyler's "Back When We Were Grownups." Or any of her books. John, maybe you could write a novel. All you'd need is some "quirky" characters -- you could write a book about former copy editors. Please change the names.

    "Back When I Used To Be Somebody" would also be a perfect companion to my two unwritten novels: "The Last Printer In America" and "The Last Copy Editor in America." -- Bernie Hayden

  7. Joe Galloway, now a columnist with McClatchy's Washington bureau, covered the Vietnam war as a wire reporter. His book on that experience was titled "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young." That suggests another book title: "We Were Editors Once...And Young."