Sunday, March 14, 2010

Beware of the editor

I have spent thirty years working with copy editors, several of whom I have trained and many of whom I admire. They have been boon companions. But it is regrettably true that not all copy editors are equally able, and, even more regrettably, some can be positively dangerous. Here are a few you will want to watch out for.

Speed Demon tears through copy. Hand him a text and he’ll return it to you before you’ve swallowed another sip of coffee. Speed can keep up this pace all night. Unfortunately, as he careers along he fails to notice that a proper name is spelled two different ways, not all of the subjects and verbs agree, and he has left a typo in his headline.

One Gear goes to the opposite extreme. One is meticulous. Every name is checked, every fact looked up, every sentence weighed, tested, and verified. One can handle three, maybe four texts a shift, and the pace never changes. If it is twenty minutes past deadline, steam is escaping under pressure from the news editor’s head, and the printing plant foreman is approaching hysteria, One’s lumbering pace never quickens.

You should have been suspicious when you scored Picky Picky Picky’s applicant test. Something was marked wrong in every single sentence, usually two or three things. Picky is determined to show you that she is, by gum, an editor, and being an editor means finding lots of things wrong, without regard to significance. Large errors, small errors, things that are not errors — Picky vacuums them all up and dumps them on your desk.

Editing, as Black/White understands it, means following the Rules. The Rules can mainly be found in the Associated Press Stylebook, which Black/White has annotated more thoroughly than the Talmud. For every instance, there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer, and Black/White has a no-tolerance policy for wrong answers. Everything that comes from Black/White’s hands has a coat of battleship gray slapped over it.

If you wrote it, it’s fine with Loosey Goosey, because changing it would interfere with the Writer’s Voice, and the voice of God is not any more sacred than the Writer’s. Loosey is particularly treasured by writers in features departments, because she never thinks that a self-indulgent goat-choker ought to be shorter or that a metaphor that would look excessive in the Bulwer-Lytton competition ought to be challenged.

There are, one blushes to admit, copy editors who fit the stereotype that writers cherish: the frustrated writer who rewrites other people’s prose just because he can. Author, unlike Picky Picky Picky, does not hold that the texts he edits are factually or grammatically defective; he just thinks that he could have written them better, and, whenever he is not closely watched, he simply rewrites to suit his own taste.

Those reference books on grammar and usage on the shelf next to the copy desk? That list of electronic references painstaking compiled, vetted, and distributed to the editors? I Know has never looked at any of them, because I Know knows better. I Know, as you can count on being reminded, was editing copy when you were still a zygote, and he has forgotten more about the craft than you will ever learn. (Both those statements, oddly, may be true.) He isn’t having any truck with your newfangled enthusiasms about language and editing, and if you are weak and cowardly, you will let him get away with this.

Nobody knows why Out Of applied to be a copy editor. Perhaps someone on the parole board suggested it. Perhaps Out Of just heard that it was a job where you could sit down all day without having to run around town and talk to people you don’t know who don’t want to answer your questions anyhow. Nobody knows why Out Of was hired, either, except that the managers don’t have a clue about what editing is and imagine that just about anybody can run spell-check and format a text for the Web. Out Of doesn’t know much about language, so he doesn’t fix anything. He’s not particularly curious, so he doesn’t ask many questions. He just takes what comes along and passes it along.

I Know Better is the past of editing. Out Of My Depth is the future.


  1. Great descriptions of the squirrels running loose in the editorial tree house. I worked with a fellow Out Of (a she fellow so is that a shellow?) who left Forward at the beginning of a document. Being a Picky Picky Picky I Know Better, I came to the Foreword rescue. Ahhhh.

  2. Careers, or careens?

  3. Virginia MerchánMarch 14, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    I'm afraid Out Of My Depth Disease is spreading easily and rapidly throughout the world... :(

  4. Confession: I've been Speed Demon before. I might even have to be Speed Demon later today. Like Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H complaining about having to do "meatball surgery," I sometimes have to do "meatball editing" because someone wants it immediately and there just aren't enough minutes in an hour.

  5. Patrick K. LackeyMarch 15, 2010 at 2:54 PM

    What good journalism requires is good judgment, plus the ability to spell judgment. Don't know why so many persons drawn to journalism lack both. Journalism is a highly structured business that employs anarchists who spell badly.

  6. Out of My Depth had teachers who never used the word "verb" because "action word" made so much more sense to them. He or she is never royaled by anything that comes across the desk, unless it is a suggestion that Out of My Depth needs to read more. OoMD is bewildered -- why should they spend evenings on a pass time like reading?

    Eventually OoMD will get a new supervisor, who will complain in a performance review that he or she is "reticent to learn new skills at the copy desk" because Out of My Depth hasn't mastered the new content management system.

    Barbara Phillips Long