Friday, May 1, 2009

That little band of heroes

I’ve been a little distracted over the past few days, and it’s only now that I can get around to reminding you that the American Copy Editors Society is in the middle of its national conference, this year in Minneapolis.

Far from a bunch of creaky old grammar carpers in green eyeshades and sleeve garters, the members are increasingly savvy about electronics. Anyone unable to attend can follow the conference on a Web page or through Twitter.

They are a doughty bunch. About 250 of them showed up this year, I suspect mostly at their own expense, for a comprehensive and concentrated training in the craft. You cannot match the range of expertise anywhere else. And they are doing this in the middle of a recession, with the faltering newspaper industry discarding their members like desperate mariners heaving the cargo overboard.

Twelve years ago, I was at the first national conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Copy editors at that time were, in addition to being anonymous, frequently disregarded and often scorned in their workplaces. Thanks to the founders, Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, and to the support of some influential figures among the nation’s editors, copy editors found a voice and a platform.

The collegiality, the training, and the morale-building provided by this organization have helped to improve the level of editing at newspapers, magazines, and electronic sites.* It is a bitter irony that just as copy editing was beginning to come into its own, larger forces have questioned the utility and value of editing at all.

I know from thirty years of experience that writers, even the best ones, benefit from editing — need the perspective of that independent set of eyes on their work. And they are getting less and less of that benefit every day, to their cost and to yours, readers.

Newspapers organizations — print-electronic hybrids — are struggling to find a model that will sustain them. Electronic-only journalism is in flux. Organizations like ACES will have to find the means to sustain their mission, and nothing is certain for them. It is not a hospitable landscape.

But for today, and tomorrow, in Minneapolis, two hundred and fifty editors, among them people I have known and respected over the years, are fighting the good fight. I invite you to read what my colleague and friend David Sullivan has to say about this gathering.

And, from a distance, I urge them: Keep the faith.

*As the observant may have noticed in this paragraph, now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.


  1. No writer is above the pencil (a phrase I coined before computers). I'm always happy to have someone cast a wary eye over my work and have kept on a retainer consisting of nothing more than friendship a copy editor in another state. Fortunately, e-mail has made this relationship work. If I had to rely on the U.S. mail, it would be a different matter.

  2. That's called the Oxford comma? I didn't know that. The GPO Style Manual calls for the same usage.

  3. John,

    This post, among others I've read over the past week, has shed some light on the perspective of a veteran copy editor in the newsroom. Being entrenched in the online space, I often find it difficult to understand what everyone seems to be clinging to in print.

    "Yeah, more layoffs, but that's because the print industry is dying. They have a Web site that could be very successful... what are they so afraid of?"

    That was before I learned of the benefits of having _layers_ of editors in a news room rather than just a row. Presumably borrowing from the model of their electronic brethren, it seems newspapers are under the impression they can make do with a single line of defense. Yes, the same tactic used during the revolutionary war... and we all know how that turned out.

    I think in the long term, things will work out for the better. News rooms will be microscopic compared to their early 90s selves, but I think the industry will realize the only true value they have is their ability to generate original content that has been made unparalleled by a robust team of editors.

    Eliminate good editing and you fall into the congealed membrane of blogs, news aggregators and amateur news portals.

    Thanks for your service.

    Mykel Nahorniak

  4. John,

    I'm so glad you have resurrected your blog here.

    Keep the faith, indeed.

  5. Professor

    Happy to see Wordville has survived the plundering of the Sun.

  6. Glad you found a new home for your blog John. And welcome to Blogger. I have an infrequently updated and rambling Blogger home myself at

  7. Your comment about a second set of eyes brings to mind a parallel that I hadn't noticed before. As an engineer, a sizeable portion of my work product consists of drawings for producing components of various sorts. Long ago (disclaimer: long long before my own time), I would have produced some sort of sketch with rough dimensional information (or even a prototype part, probably carved from wood or foam) and handed it to a drafter. The drafter would have produced a drawing, a checker would have reviewed it for conformance to the company's drawing standards, and I would have looked over the final product before "sending it to print" or releasing for production.

    Now, we do it with a computer. My rough sketch can be copied and pasted into a production title block, and the necessary dimensional information added with a few clicks. So who needs a draftsman? Or a checker? I can still do the final check myself, and I'm perfectly capable of recognizing an error when I see one.

    There are of course mistakes that don't get caught. Most of the time they simply result in a phone call with a request to clarify a missing detail, and some embarrassment on the part of the engineer. Occasionally a part needs to be modified or remade. Very occasionally, the effects are more widespread.

    I suspect my rant applies primarily to the small companies I've worked at, and that larger companies do have the resources for more formalized procedures involving multiple sets of eyes. Nevertheless, as you said, the omission comes at the company's cost. Yes, the tools exist to consolidate three jobs into one, but as you remove people from the process, you reduce your chances to catch the errors.

  8. As I work in AP style on the day job and Chicago after hours, I entirely sympathize with your feelings about the Oxford comma.

    I have only attended one state ACES conference so far, but I did find it enjoyable and informative. The best part of going to an ACES conference is being surrounded by like-minded people. So reassuring to know we are not alone in our grammar geekiness.

    As for eyeshades, I don’t own a green one, but today I am wearing purple. I own a variety of visors, because fluorescent lights are awful.

    Great to see the blog continued. It’s long been a favorite. (I particularly enjoyed the “not dead yet” tweet.)

  9. I'm very glad you will still be around the blogosphere, at least. Yours is certainly my favorite word-related blog.

    And I cannot imagine the freedom and relief you must feel to finally be able to use the Oxford Comma. I was been bound to AP style for a few months, but even then I itched to get away.

  10. I'm so glad to see you in a new home, although I am so sorry that the Sun let you go. That newspaper is sadly only a shadow of what it once was and it's poorer for all the recent cuts. I'm looking forward to reading more of your words of wisdom. I'm also glad to see the Oxford comma getting some love, usually I'm in the minority in using it.- Zann

  11. He's back! He's back! He's back! He's back! He's back!

  12. Free at last! Free at last! I love the Oxford comma, and I hate it when adverbs are put unidiomatically before auxiliary verbs instead of between them and the main verbs! Rock on!

  13. John, Great to see you in your new home! I read your blog every day. I was devastated by this week's demolition of the Sun's extraordinarily talented news staff. I grew up reading that paper, and am deeply saddened by what it has been reduced to. Best of luck to you.

  14. As the spousal unit of a long-time, recently mugged-and-axed Sun editor, I say: those let go are the lucky ones. The demise of that once-great publication is heartbreaking. Not only are you free of AP style, but you are free of the Tribune tyranny! Best wishes ~ Annamarie

  15. Welcome back! How many punctuation marks have a song named after them?

  16. I love the Oxford comma.

  17. I love the Oxford comma.

  18. The newsroom (or what's left of it) misses you already. Mostly for the hats, but also the bourbon balls. Oh, and the editing. ;)

  19. John, I'd so hoped to see you at ACES, but am glad to find you here. You write about language with a grace I can only aspire to emulate.

    I'll let our readers know where to find you. And if you're ever in New York, the libation's on me.



  20. John - sorry to see you leave the Sun, but happy to see You Don't Say in the webisphere. You've always been a class act.

  21. Patricia the TerseMay 5, 2009 at 2:11 AM

    I like the idea of green eyeshades and garters. Quite apart from the practical purposes they serve, I'm in favor of dress codes. There seem to be so few these days.