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

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Don't give up the ship*

A reader has written to express “gratitude for your blog, which helps me keep the faith,” and adding, “I, too, am an unemployed copy editor who is too old to be hired yet too young to retire and am trying to figure out what to do next.”

There is ample reason to be discouraged. Not merely in faltering daily newspapers, but also in magazines, books, and Internet sites, there has been a large-scale abandonment of the discipline of editing and an acceptance of shoddiness as the norm. The depressed economy aggravates the situation, so that when an actual editing position opens up, scores, or even hundreds, of qualified applicants swarm over it.

There is my own melancholy situation, with dozens of fruitless applications and inquiries over the past eight months. A couple of possibilities I bungled on my own, but when I am invariably turned down or ignored, speculating about other reasons is inevitable: I am too narrowly qualified as a newspaper copy editor, or I am overqualified, or too old, or too expensive (they think) — too easily rejected out of hand. (Just think, dear reader, would you like to have me as a subordinate?)

And yet, even though the day may come that I wind up bagging your groceries, I have not given up and do not intend to.

The freelance editing jobs that have come my way in the past few months have demonstrated two important points: People need editing just as much as they ever did, and I can deliver the goods. To those two points, I can add a generalization: If everyone is to make do with fewer editors, it is important to employ qualified ones and allow them to function properly.

Positive glimmers can be discerned. Twenty-two students have signed up for my editing course at Loyola for the coming semester. (How many will remain after the first class is a different matter.) They are not interested in newspapers, but in their majors in advertising and public relations and other areas, they have been led to understand that a grasp of editing is essential for people who want to make a living with language.

There are you, gentle readers, a sturdy band always returning to this site, perhaps, like my correspondent, finding encouragement here. There are many others doing the Lord’s work, too. Bryan Garner has brought out a third, expanded edition of his dictionary of modern American usage. Grammar Girl has a huge audience for her level-headed advice (delivered without my pomposity and affectation). The estimable Jan Freeman took a major smack at peevologists with her commentary on Ambrose Bierce’s cranky manual of usage; she continues to hold the line with her column in The Boston Globe.

All of these, and more, are offering a moderate and informed prescriptivism to people who want to write more clearly and more precisely, without the bogus rules and idiosyncratic shibboleths that have burdened students and writers for generations.

Let me remind you as well, that the sun has begun to track northward again in this hemisphere and the daylight is slowly lengthening, the American economy is beginning to crawl out of a hole, and we have a fresh year to work with. I have retooled the resume and am preparing a renewed campaign for employment. Those of you in my situation should be doing the same. There is work to be done; it remains for us to find it.

In the meantime, I have not given up. I have kept the faith.

*I am aware, irony fanciers, that Captain Lawrence died shortly after saying something like this (the actual words were “Tell the men to fire faster and not give up the ship”) and that the Chesapeake was compelled to surrender after a disastrously short battle with HMS Shannon. But still.


  1. Keep the faith indeed, John. May the new year help you find someone who values language, quality and humor.

  2. What a revelation it has been that we can positively affect the public discourse without newspapers. The venues are changed, but the battles are similar. The effects are less evident, but in some cases they may be longer lasting. Which is not to say that bagging groceries doesn't have a certain appeal.

  3. The need for editors is more apparent each day. For example, I will not allow our students' stories to be posted to because its editing is so horrible.

  4. I find it necessary to add that "Don't give up the ship" worked for Commodore Perry, whose flag had that saying at the Battle of Lake Erie (during the War of 1812).

    There's a beer out of Cleveland that also has a play on the phrase, "Don't give up the sip." Any phrase that encourages beer-making is fine by me.

    Great Lakes Brewing Co.

  5. Or if we are going to be classical, Nil desperandum!

  6. To be absolutely honest, I'd love to have you as a subordinate, or a boss, or a coworker. I like having staff that are well-educated, intelligent, and unafraid to speak their minds or point out holes in plans. And I like having bosses that respect well-educated, intelligent people who speak their minds and point out holes in plans.

  7. "Twenty-two students have signed up for my editing course at Loyola for the coming semester. (How many will remain after the first class is a different matter.)"

    See? No eye-gouging necessary to convey the point!

  8. Keep the faith, sir!
    As a second-semester senior undergrad (specializing in copy editing, no less) at a fairly pretentious school of journalism, I too know about this bone-jarring fear of grocery bagging.
    Here's hoping 2010 brings us all work. Cheers.