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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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/.
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.
John E. McIntyre, a veteran editor and teacher, is back in harness. He worked for nearly 23 years at The Baltimore Sun, for 14 of those years as head of its copy desk, and, after a one-year hiatus, has returned as night content production editor. He has taught copy editing at Loyola of Maryland since 1995. He was the second president of the American Copy Editors Society, serving two terms, and he has been a consultant on writing and editing at publications in the United States and Canada.