Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Only another copy editor would understand

Reacting to my mordant “Horoscope for editors” post (sample: The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough), one reader commented:

... and yet he wistfully longs for his days on the copy desk.

God, I miss them. What you must understand is that even in the best of times, copy editors fought a daily desperate rear-guard action, clawing their way to some increase in clarity and precision against unforgiving deadlines, obtuse colleagues who never troubled to understand the details of production (or, often, syntax), balky equipment, and asinine directives from on high. Every victory, however minor, was a hard-won triumph to be savored, every defeat a spur to greater effort.

To you, you writer, we were impediments to the full flowering of your “voice.” To you, you civilian, if you had heard of us at all, we were a bunch of nerds, certifiable obsessive-compulsives who cared about things that you would not even notice. To you, you sharp-penciled bean counter, we were, and are, disposable “non-core” staff.

But among ourselves, we were comrades who took to the field on Saint Crispin’s Day, and when we gather to nurse our beers and talk about lost glory, we few, we happy few, will strip our sleeves and show our scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”

A pity you weren’t there.


  1. A battle 439 years after Agincourt, also on St. Crispin's Day, provides another opportunity for historical and literary comparison:

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon behind them
    Volley'd and thunder'd;
    Storm'd at with shot and shell,
    While horse and hero fell,
    They that had fought so well
    Came thro' the jaws of Death,
    Back from the mouth of hell,
    All that was left of them,
    Left of six hundred.

    Tennyson's poem is particularly fitting given the confusion and recklessness of newspaper executives.

  2. I stand in awe of both of you. Really, perfect sentiments.

  3. Let's see: Copy editing as sport (you should forgive the term) and copy editing as war,memorialized by Shakespeare and Tennyson. I see neither tournaments nor "crosses row on row" in the endeavor. You are allowed to wish you were at work, with all the usual irritants that go with working for and with other people. But I suspect it was a job like many others - not a romantic adventure.

  4. I told you that you civilians wouldn't understand. It is less a job than a calling.

  5. I understand. I, too, miss my days on the copy desk.

  6. Comments from Facebook:

    Jann Nyffeler
    You nailed it, John. I want that post on a T-shirt or something lasting. Like a newspaper article on the fridge.

    Tom Mangan
    Confession: I added the "longs wistfully" comment... some ghost in the machine prevented use of my real identity.

    Mike Jarboe
    Excellent. I wonder how some of these people are going to enjoy working on Thanksgiving and Christmas, something they probably have never done in the past.

    Phillip Blanchard
    This will be the first Thanksgiving I have not worked in decades, and I barely know what to do with myself.

    Lynn Orr
    Don't think "like" is strong enough for this one, John. This is why we are what we are. Thanks for summing it up so perfectly.

  7. Agreed, John. I've never loved a job so much, and I never expect to again. Thank you for stating so eloquently what copy editors feel.

  8. O, do not wish one more!
    Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
    That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
    Let him depart; his passport shall be made
    And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
    We would not die in that man's company
    That fears his fellowship to die with us.

  9. Though I was incredibly saddened to see John added to the ream of copy editors axed in the last 18 months, I am thankful for posts such as these -- knowing one of my editing heroes understands first-hand how I feel.

    I've been fortunate to find another job, but I miss newspapers, and especially the desk, every single day. My former colleagues agree. Copy editors are a rare and wonderful breed, and it's torture to be in a workplace without long semantic digressions, extreme cynicism and endless punning.

    At least now I have Sundays off I can catch the Grey Cup and Superbowl games this year.

  10. I used to think that for just one day a newspaper should publish every story exactly as it was presented to the copy desk. Then, I thought, people would appreciate copy editors. I didn't mean for papers to present uncopy-edited stories every day of the week.

  11. Actually, newspapers are getting closer and closer to the point at which any copy editing of text is largely notional.

  12. You know what my favorite thing is about buying books in electronic form here?

    That I can get them in RTF (a common editable-text format that most word processors can handle) and then, when I find a typo or other error,

    I fix it and click "Save".

    And the next time I read that book,

    it's not there any more.