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, January 8, 2010

Pick up after yourself

Responding to yesterday’s “Turn out the lights” post, Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism commented thus:

Most interesting from the Strib editor's memo, of course, is this:

“This will also require more individual responsibility: Reporters cannot turn in stories without running a basic spell check. Editors should have reporters read over every story they have edited. Photographers must turn in accurate cutlines that adhere to AP style. More staffers will need to be flexible about the work they do, meaning some reporters might serve a shift as a copy editor or line editor in any given week.”

I hope they sell tickets. Promises to be great entertainment.


The civilians among you may find this difficult to credit, but there are indeed professional journalists at major newspapers who do not routinely spell-check their own work before submitting it for publication. They are under time pressure, poor dears, and besides, they have been accustomed to the idea that some anonymous drudge on the copy desk will clean up after them. (Incidentally, any number of assigning editors don’t bother to run a spell-check either.)

It’s not just spell-checking — though that would tend to catch when they spell proper names inconsistently — but a host of other matters usually left to the copy desk: Fact-checking. Establishing conventional grammar and syntax. Locating the focus, if any, in the article. Cutting padding and irrelevant material. Restraining ill-advised self-indulgence.

It doesn’t matter. The people at the higher levels making these decisions to eliminate copy editors don’t understand what copy editors do. They think they can just tell reporters to pick up the slack. It is as if a teenager whose entire wardrobe lies in heaps on the floor, who has never carried a dirty plate or glass from the living room to the kitchen without prodding, and who leaves the bathroom in a shape not fit to be described here, will instantaneously — at a mere word — make everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Thus Mr. Fisher’s well-founded expectation of amusement to come.

I do feel a pang for the people at working level, the supervisors whose task is to carry out imbecilic directives. They must feel as General von Paulus did on his promotion to field marshal.

(Hitler’s thinking, with the Sixth Army collapsing under the Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad, was that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. Von Paulus surrendered the day after his promotion. Examples of wishful thinking are not limited to the Nazi high command. )

The new era arrives and will not be denied. So. Let the corrections column expand. Let the crash blossoms flower. Let even more readers seek their information elsewhere.