Friday, January 22, 2010

Out of the archives, endlessly mocking

I feel a little embarrassed to be repurposing material from past posts, but a crowd of new readers has arrived this week, some of them drawn by David Hobby’s kind remarks at the Strobist blog. And there is a wealth of material from the older You Don’t Say at that is now inaccessible.

So, with no further apology, I present Linnaean classifications of copy editors, writers, and managers. These are three previous posts strung together; if you’ve seen them before, you’re under no obligation to look at them again.


A partial catalogue of the denizens of the copy desk.

The Pouncer

The Pouncer takes his motto from Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” When the Pouncer discovers an error in a story, he brandishes it aloft and proclaims it. The error is like the dead bird your cat deposits on your doorstep to show how hunting is done.

Because the Pouncer is smart, he is usually right. Unfortunately, he has to establish his own worth every night by showing the defects of others. So if nothing substantial presents itself, he will take a story and worry it like a terrier with a rat until he can make an issue of something.

He is beloved by reporters and assigning editors alike.

By the Book

You can predict all the changes By the Book makes in copy. Since always becomes because, half an acre becomes a half-acre, and attorney becomes lawyer (or maybe the reverse). No sentence ends with a preposition, and neither does any line of a headline. Everything for By the Book is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong; there is always a correct way to do everything, and everything must be made correct. By the Book’s copy of the AP Stylebook (copyright 1982) has been annotated more comprehensively than the Talmud.

Thanks for Sharing

“Hey, this obituary has a funny line in it.”
“Did you see what Wall Street said about the company stock on Romenesko today?”
“Here’s a real cute picture of a cat wearing a bonnet.” (Why, on edition deadline, is she looking at Internet images of cats?)

The big-hearted Thanks for Sharing can’t keep anything to herself. If it’s unusual, or amusing, or heart-wrenching, she has to let you know about it because you might otherwise miss it. Never mind that you are — what do we call it? — working.

Mote Man

The devil is in the details, and Mote Man is on the lookout for the devil. He, like Gilbert’s Major-General Stanley “knows the kings of England, and he quotes the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.” If the story says that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mote Man knows that Constantine established a toleration of Christianity. If the story says that John F. Kennedy was the youngest man to become president of the United States, he knows that Theodore Roosevelt was younger when McKinley was assassinated. Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected president.

But since Mote Man’s attention is devoted entirely to recondite distinctions, he is capable of sending through a story about Iran bearing a 48-point headline that says Iraq.

Speed Demon

Speed Demon can turn a story around faster than anyone else on the desk. If you hand Speed Demon a page proof, it will be returned to you marked “OK” before you have been able to sit down again. Speed Demon handles twice as much copy as any other editor on the desk, and is quite proud of that.

Speed Demon also lets through twice as many errors as anyone else on the desk.

Stuck in First

Sitting near Speed Demon is Stuck in First. As one colleague once said of another, “He only has one gear.” (And don’t write in to tell me that that should read “has only one gear.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much, and besides, IT’S A DIRECT QUOTE.) Every story that passes through Stuck in First’s hands is meticulously edited, clean and correct. And if you can pry two or three stories out of those slow-moving fingers by edition close, it is a good night.

The Correspondent

If you sit near the Correspondent, you hear her busy fingers on the keyboard, tappity-tappity-tappity-TAP. And you think, that’s good. Busy at work. Should be able to close the edition early tonight. Then you notice that the Correspondent has been working for 45 minutes on a routine 12-column-inch wire service article on the discovery that it gets hot in the Midwest in the summertime. That’s when you realize that all that music of the keyboard has been Instant Messaging to friends, some of them probably also on the copy desk.

Team Player

Team Player designs dynamic pages, writes crisp headlines, and sets priorities under deadline pressure. A self-starter, Team Player acts proactively to take action, communicates effectively with stakeholders, and displays a positive attitude. Team Player has broad editing experience, excellent news judgment and leadership skills and a desire to innovate. Team Player understands and embraces the company’s core mission, values and goals.



I am Pouncer, Speed Demon, Mote Man, Thanks for Sharing, Correspondent, By the Book and, sometimes, Stuck in First. I have at one time or another displayed all these behaviors. Learning humility is easy on a copy desk, because in identifying the faults and failings of others, one holds up a mirror to oneself.


A short guide to the zoology of newspaper writers.

The Crown Prince and/or The Princess Royal

The prize bull and prize heifer of the sacred cattle have typically won prizes — real prizes, sometimes with money attached, not the stuff that state press associations hand out like candy corn at Halloween. Consequently, they have been exempted from routine work. Production of a story, once or twice a year, is an event in the newsroom.

Mute Inglorious Milton

Mute Inglorious Milton has the misfortune to work on a beat or a section largely ignored by the rest of the paper. He/she may be diligent and accurate, may even be able to write clearly, but there is no chance that he/she will ever be summoned from the suburbs to work downtown, much less ever become The Crown Prince or The Princess Royal.

The Supreme Pontificator

As a writer of analyses or reviews and a master of the Authoritative Tone, The Supreme Pontificator has no peer. He/she has never been wrong. Or at least has never acknowledged a misjudgment. Moreover, he/she speaks ex cathedra on any subject in any article. Read his/her articles to learn what God would think if God had the inside information.

The Supreme Pontificator is destined to become a distinguished member of the Columntern (See below).

Who Touched My Story

Who Touched My Story will demand an accounting of every keystroke during the editing of his/her story, often calling the copy desk on edition deadline with this inquiry. Who Touched will contest every attempt to untangle syntax or regularize a mixed metaphor. Corrections of errors of fact will not be met with gratitude.

Who Touched has become such a nuisance that assigning editors have given up the struggle. His/her copy is subjected to peristalsis rather than editing, and when a copy editor has the temerity to raise a question, Who Touched will answer, “My editor thought that this story was fine. Why are you questioning it?”

Mirror, Mirror

“Did you read my story? What did you think of my story? Did you like it better than yesterday’s story? What was your favorite passage? What’s the headline on my story going to say? Is it on Page One? Why isn’t it on Page One?”

Mirror, Mirror is apparently unaware that anyone else is writing or that the paper and its editors have any concerns apart from the burnishing of his/her article.

By the Word

By the Word believes that a 1,500-word story is, by definition, twice as good as a 750-word story. Accordingly, an article on some continuing story with three paragraphs of incremental developments will be padded out with a couple of dozen paragraphs taken from the archive. By the Word is particularly deadly when covering crime and courts, because a story on the third day of jury selection will require a recapitulation of the complete circumstances of the original crime, with context taking the reader back to the time Cain smacked Abel.

The Duckbilled Platitude

The Duckbilled Platitude never met a cliche he/she didn’t like. But he/she is as busy as a one-armed paperhanger. At the end of the day, racing against the clock, he gives 110 percent trying to find the smoking gun. And the next day he is back in the saddle again. Trying to get Duckbilled to give up cliches is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Columnist Party Apparatchik

The members of the Columntern write about their children, their pets, their interminable waits queuing up with the rabble at the motor vehicle bureau. When whimsical, they write columns that Dave Barry might have been able to make funny. When channeling Walter Winchell, they produce little apercus and apothegms about life, held together with ellipses and spit.

When one Apparatchik achieves the status of Supreme Pontificator and takes one of his/her extended vacations, the paper reprints past columns.

The Columntern is not subject to editing, because, as Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.” Or more simply, as Don Hebb put it, “What’s not worth doing is not worth doing well.”

High Camp

High Camp has learned from colleagues, taking the Authoritative Tone from The Supreme Pontificator, adopting the self-absorption of Mirror, Mirror, appropriating the gift of unoriginality from The Duckbilled Platitude, and experimenting with the risible pretensions of Goodbye English Prose (See below), he/she confects a rococo prose unlike anything else on land or sea. Many writers talk about developing a voice; High Camp has Voice. The effect is very much like what P.G. Wodehouse or S.J. Perlman might have accomplished if they had taken no account of the actual meanings of words.

High Camp flowers in features sections.

Plain But Earnest

Plain But Earnest is diligent, so diligent that if he/she were any more productive it would sink the whole operation. Plain But files every day, sometimes more than once. Everything in Plain But’s notes goes into the story — stray details of no particular moment, meaningless quotes (“But he said it”). Plain But has no literary aspirations. In fact, the only structural principle Plain But has mastered in constructing an article is randomness.

Goodbye English Prose

Goodbye English Prose is all literary, all flair, all the time, operating under the misapprehension that he/she is creating for the newspaper what H.L. Mencken called “beautiful letters.” Goodbye English loves metaphors, no matter how strained or grotesquely inappropriate to the subject. Goodbye English will drag in the most obvious allusions or quotations from English literature to demonstrate that he/she is an educated/cultivated/sophisticated/sensitive artist.

An editor who questions Goodbye English’s fulsome effects will witness an instant metamorphosis into Who Touched My Story.

Disclosures and disclaimers

“Duckbilled platitude” is borrowed from a poem by E.E. Cummings (NOT e.e. cummings, dammit). “Goodbye English prose” was the headline suggested by an Australian journalist during a workshop featuring a particularly overripe specimen. And “mute inglorious Milton” is, of course, taken from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem once familiar to just about anyone who had made it all the way through high school, but now, sadly, no longer so.

Reporters/writers reading this posting should be aware that the archetypes described here were developed out of more than a quarter-century’s experience as a newspaper copy editor and should not necessarily be identified with any specific person working within striking distance of my office.


The reader should understand that most of these types are male. And white. Despite more than three decades of affirmative action, most newspapers are still run by white guys. I regret that I cannot recall the name of the writer who, being told some years ago of a proposed support group for white males, said that there is already a support group for white men: it’s called the United States of America.

The Fonctionnaire

The French understand the nature of the inevitable gray civil servant who will endure until the universe winds down in entropy. Stars burst into novas and burn out, corporate owners come and go, and management fads succeed fads, but The Fonctionnaire endures. Cunningly, The Functionnaire, unobserved, occupies some obscure office with a nebulous title and obscure duties, biding his time until the more talented colleagues flame out, and then occupies the chair of authority because no one else is left. To sit in a meeting with him is to perceive the processes of a wasting disease.

Great Is Caesar

Great Is is an empire builder. He knows exactly the splendid things he wants to accomplish, and he is ruthless in their pursuit, though not openly so. Superficially magnanimous and agreeable to those who can be useful to accomplish his aims, he sets his face against those who obstruct him — and they wither and perish. He does, in fact, accomplish great things, and his empire expands. But, like Julius and Augustus, he leaves no worthy successor. He will be followed in time by The Fonctionnaire.


Pharaoh, like Great Is Caesar, has grand designs. Unlike Great Is, he is clueless about how to accomplish them. So instead he is dictatorial. He hardens his heart. His voice is the only voice that booms out in meetings, and lesser folk are misguided if they imagine that his invitations to discussion are open invitations; they are opportunities to agree with him. When the plagues rain down, he will not know what to do about them, except to bluster.

The Regular Guy

He’d like to drink a beer with you (domestic, light). He might bestow a nickname on you. He wants to be your pal. He won’t ask that much of you. He has, like Richard Nixon, read the manual on how to be a Regular Fellow, and he follows its specifications to the letter. Anything you do is fine with him, just fine. Keep in mind that when your interests get in the way of his, you will find yourself out at the curb.

I Know Better

I Know exists to demonstrate his superiority over his subordinates. (He therefore prefers and promotes subordinates over whom superiority can easily be demonstrated.) When any story or proposal is put before him, he instantly identifies its defects, and he orders it to be worked over again. I Know’s criticisms are typically delivered before an audience, the better for the common people to experience a proper awe of his acuity. I Know’s advantage over Pharaoh is that he actually has some judgment, not that that will endear him to his frazzled subordinates.

Out Of His Depth

Out Of got promoted because there is no possibility in the known universe that he would ever be a threat to anyone above him. Understanding at some dim, reptilian level that the job is beyond his limited abilities, he is fiercely loyal to his protector, his only hope. Out Of would inspire pathos if it were not for his unaccountable vanity about his position; his feeble pronouncements, like Pharaoh’s and I Know’s, are not to be challenged.*

Eager Beaver

Eager, out to prove himself to the High Command, will put in fourteen-hour days. Sixteen-hour days. Eager will take on any assignment, absorb any feckless twit into the staff, meet any deadline, bear any burden. Eager will produce the story dictated to him at ten o’clock in the morning, learn three o’clock that it is not what was wanted, reassign it as the shadows of evening gather, and edit and rewrite it himself to meet the most recent diktat. He will show up early the next morning to repeat the process.

Tee Time

Tee Time doesn’t really have any interest in the operation. He would rather be on the golf course, or playing darts in a saloon, or intriguing for a position higher up in the corporation than overseeing the paper. So he leaves Out Of His Depth in charge. When he has collected enough coupons, he will move on to a higher sphere of endeavor.


OCD cannot let go of anything. The story needs to have corrections and updates and refinements and tweeks — oh, and the photographs don’t match the story, and the graphics have to be redone. Maybe this should have been seen to a couple of weeks ago, but there was all this stuff in the story that had to be recast and reorganized and — no, it has to be taken back from the copy desk now because the writer wants to make some changes; you’ll have it back in five minutes. Maybe ten. And are those the headlines you put on it? They’re all wrong; here are some suggestions. How soon do you have to have it for tomorrow? There are fixes and changes in it that you have to make? Can I have it back for just a minute?

The Graduate

Ever so smarter than you, he has read more books than you, uses bigger words than you, and loses no opportunity to parade his learning before you. You will be expected to nod in silent assent as he unfolds his endless anecdotes and observations, all of which you have heard at least twice, as you beg for merciful death to overtake you. But once you have acceded to his superior learning and sophistication, and endured his endless anecdotes, he is generally content to leave you alone. Because learning is not held in any particular regard in journalism, his prospects for advancement are extremely limited.**

*Out Of is one of the many managing editors under whom I have served. At one prolonged hearing on legal issues, I observed Out Of at a table with a little folder containing a miniature legal pad. For the entire afternoon he wrote nothing in it. Then, as the hearing officer brought the proceedings to a close, I watched with intent interest as he opened the portfolio and tore off a sheet of paper.

He spat out a wad of chewing gum into the paper and crumpled it up, then left the hearing room.

**The copy desk is the logical repository for this one.