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

Thursday, May 6, 2010

That thing I can't say about baseball

It has come to this: I am reading the sports section again.

A year ago, after my [cough] involuntary separation from The Sun, I expressed relief at the freedom from any obligation to read about sports. I never played them, never liked them, know virtually nothing about them.* Having me actually edit sports copy would have been analogous to handing a nail gun to a toddler.

But now I am back, with a professional and ethical obligation to know what is being published, and I will try once again to keep up.

If you have a taste for mildly amusing irony, consider that the same publishing executives who dismiss traditional copy desk procedures as vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial process also treat their remaining copy editors as if they were interchangeable cogs. 

But it is not so.

Accuracy and clarity in editing depend on the expertise of the editor. A copy editor deeply versed in the obscurities of baseball and football may not be the right person to edit copy about science and medicine. The copy editor who is a sharp-eyed observer of politics may be at sea in editing articles about the arts.

Though copy editors at newspapers and magazines are by necessity generalists, even so they tend to specialize along the bent of their personal tastes and backgrounds. It is to the reader’s benefit for an article to be edited by someone familiar with the subject matter.

You will perhaps pardon me for feeling impelled to say something that ought to be obvious to anyone.

It is not, however, obvious to the people who have cut staffs back to catch-as-catch-can “universal” desks, or consolidated the editing of your local stories to editors in another state, or abandoned copy editing altogether. This leaves writers working without a net, and unless you relish witnessing their spills, you are less and less likely to be enthralled with the consequences.

These desperate expedients have been forced on the industry by unfavorable economic conditions—not every executive has some principled but uninformed opposition to editing. But that does not mean that such expedients should be made permanent. You might have to boil your shoes for soup during a famine, but you won’t want to keep the recipe when times get better.

Luckily for me, I am still able to lean on the exceptionally able Andy Knobel and Steve Gould and the other sports editors at The Sun. They know their onions, as the Brits say of expertise, and I know as well as they do the importance of accurate and timely reporting on sports for a multitude of Sun readers. The point in employing and retaining a corps of experienced editors like them is that we collectively compensate for one another’s weak spots, to our benefit — and yours.

*As explained in the post “That thing I say about baseball.”


  1. Patrick K. LackeyMay 6, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    Decades ago the Des Moines Register had a talented female copy editor with a clean mind. Don't know how she got into journalism, but she did. Because she had never caught a double entrendre in her life, a second copy editor, one with a more normal copy editor's mind, had to read behind her looking for anything sexual that might offend readers.

    The problem with making a sports mistake in the paper is that so many readers are experts on sports. There are 733 sports experts for every expert in politics or culture.

  2. It's worth knowing the backgrounds, hobbies, interests and foreign-language skills of everyone at a magazine or newspaper, not just the copy editors. These folks can be tapped to scan stories to find possible problems. Several errors related to farming have gotten past this city boy but were caught by colleagues who grew up in rural areas.

  3. My predecessor as "farm editor" of my first paper was born in suburban NYC. The job consisted of compiling an open page for the Monday edition using wire copy and phoned-in livestock and tobacco prices. One day the "editor" ran, out of desperation for art, a photo of a bull in a field by a forest. He identified the creature as a "wild cow."
    No one else saw this page until the next morning. His explanation to stunned supervisors: "It had antlers and it was near the woods, so ... "

  4. Speaking of sports and copy editing, take a look at this story on the birthday cake the US Senate got for Bobby Cox, manager of the Atlanta Braves:

  5. Also, the extreme deadlines and travel of sports, especially baseball with its ever-expanding time of game, make it pretty much impossible for the writer to be pushed into production duties.

  6. Patricia pressaMay 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM

    Some of the best writers in the newspapers are sports writers. They certainly require editing, but the original is so much better than many political writers. Consider yourself lucky to know those people. (Even arts reviews need help:I'm often convinced some of them don't know Bach from Berlioz - don't we play them the same way?)