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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, December 18, 2009

In case you missed it ...

A recent comment on the post “Christmas is coming. Save yourselves” said:

I can't wait until all copy editors are out of work. You people are the pathetic parasites of the newspaper industry. What do you actually create?

Had I been inclined to bandy words with such a fellow, I could have pointed out that on this blog alone and its predecessor at Baltimoresun.com, there are hundreds of examples of sound advice from a copy editor — not to speak of the posts and articles from fellow copy editors that I have cited over the past four years.

I might also have mentioned, had I thought the commenter susceptible to rational discussion, my experience that the most professional and accomplished writers I have worked with over the past three decades have been the ones most appreciative of copy editors, and that the writers most hostile to the copy desk have typically been those most in need of editing.

Instead, I contented myself with giving an answer to his rhetorical question about what copy editors actually create:

Value.

12 comments:

  1. What on earth possesses someone to post such a comment? Bizarre. Utterly bizarre.

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  2. I personally know more than one copy editor who saved me from a life of cruel addiction to commas.

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  3. By catching and correcting errors of all kinds before they reach the readers' eyes, copyeditors prevent writers and the institutions they work for from looking and sounding like idiots.

    The anonymous commenter is unwittingly demonstrating that by example.

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  4. "Value"? Too modest. Street-sweepers create value too. Say rather "Excellence."

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  5. Oh yeah, value. There's that. If one doesn't value value, however, copy editors are unneeded.

    Through most of my career, I thought that I could be a little bit flaky and independent as long as my work had value. Then I awoke one morning to discover that public journalism was valued, but not value. What's valued today is cutting costs. In the name of survival, many newspaper owners are doing what they always wanted to do anyway -- put out their publications for far less, standards be damned.

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  6. Someone who isn't accustomed to being told they are human and capable of making mistakes.

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  7. Why must editors create? The world turns on advisors too.

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  8. I always thought it was the job of writers to write, always assuming that they have something to say, and of editors to refine. When they reverse roles, nothing good comes of it.

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  9. I recently came across a beautifully-done design blog by a young woman in Massachusetts with great ideas, wonderful photography, attractive layout, and atrocious spelling and grammar. I got tired of wincing at the "seperates" and "light affects," and I won't be going back.

    I got the impression she was unemployed and looking for a magazine job. Pity.

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  10. Copy editors help create reading without the head-scratching gasp-inducing errors that can stop readers in their tracks. Readers probably wouldn't stay too long if spelling was off, grammar was out of sync or facts were false, right?

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  11. Maxwell Perkins, editor for Hemingway, Wolfe, Fitzgerald and many other greats, said an editor should edit writers in their individual styles and have none of his own. Certainly those three writers had different styles. Perkins said a good editor shouldn't be a writer because then his own style would be an impediment to editing in others' styles. (Retired copy editors are most welcome as writers. They're like dogs let off the leash.)

    As a writer, I've always hoped for an editor who would recognize what I was trying to do and help me do it. One editor I wrote for was called the burnisher because he polished prose. Such persons are priceless. Too many editors come to view writers the same way drill sergeants view recruits and for the same reason: they see so many screw-ups that they begin to think nobody can do anything right. Perkins notwithstanding, the advantage of a person being a reporter before being a copy editor is that he learns how messy the world is and how hard it is clearly describe ambiguous situations. He has more sympathy for writers.

    What little editing I've done has always felt like writing with one hand tied behind my back. The problem is, I invariably think, "That's not how I'd do it." It's what happens when a writer tries to edit. Perkins was right.

    No one asked, but here's the Lackey Rule: The only time a story runs the way the reporter wrote it is when it's worked on by an even number of editors.

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