Monday, November 7, 2022

Testing, testing ...

 One day about thirty years ago I arrived at the copy desk, and my boss, Andy Faith, took me aside and murmured, "The editing test has been compromised." Someone had got hold of the general knowledge test we administered to applicants for the desk and had circulated copies at a job fair. 

Andy invited me to revise the test, and I went to the task with a will, creating what came to be known in some circles as The Sun's brutal applicant test. 

The compromised test was a handful of pages of general-knowledge questions. It had once been required of applicants for reporting jobs, but it had apparently been determined that general knowledge was not necessary for reporting but essential for copy editing. (When I took over the test, I had access to its archive, where I discovered John Carroll's score when he applied to be a reporter in the 1960s. I told John, who had returned to the paper as the editor, that if he were to apply for a position on the copy desk, he would be a prime candidate.) 

The new test that I devised had ten categories of general knowledge--arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports--with ten questions in each. Some example questions:

In a symphony orchestra, who is the concert master?

What is the difference between Chapter 7 bankruptcy and Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

What is a pocket veto?

The English portion required deciding whether mantel or mantle was the proper word in a given sentence. 

What term is used for the breaking off of an iceberg from a glacier?

Which president of the United States served for only one month?

Which amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the individual from being forced to testify against himself or herself? 

Name the author of the American novel Invisible Man

How many pints are in a gallon?

What is Ash Wednesday?

What is a zygote?

Name one of the four events in women's gymnastics. 

The reason for this battery of short tests is that newspaper copy editors must have broad general knowledge to be effective. The cumulative scores of the general knowledge section were more reliable at the lower range than at the upper. I hired and subsequently fired the person who attained the highest score ever registered on the general knowledge section, who turned out to be a know-it-all who could not get along with fellow copy editors. We found through grim experience to pass on applicants with a cumulative score lower than fifty percent, because they just did not have enough furniture upstairs to do the job. 

But wait, there's more. 

I put together three items for an editing section. The first was a series of short passages, some taken from the work of Sun reporters that had made it as far as the copy desk, presenting issues of grammar, factual accuracy, and tone. An example: "No matter what your interest, from fun and free family activities to competitive pet and pie eating contests, you're sure to find something distinctive at Mount Airy's annual Spring Fling festival this weekend."

The second item was a wire service story in which an assigning editor had combined elements from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times to create a dog's breakfast. Information was duplicated, word for word. The structure was so jumbled that the sentence explaining what the opening paragraph was about appeared in the twelfth paragraph. The story included a sentence saying that President Bill Clinton, explaining his course of action, "described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity." 

The third and final item was a short feature story describing the draining of a pond in a public park and what it revealed. It was entirely innocuous, and there were in it, at most, a couple of things I would have considered changing. I put it there to see who would go to town on it. Those who found something to comment on in every paragraph and who effectively rewrote the story did not impress me. I didn't want people on the desk who would waste their time on inconsequential changes while alienating the reporting staff. 

There was no time limit on the test. Most applicants completed it in two hours, though some took as long as four. Some wept. But better to have a brief unpleasant experience than to find oneself in a job and ill-equipped to perform it. 

All this can be told because the applicant test is a dead letter. It has not been administered to anyone in years, because The Sun stopped hiring copy editors long before it abandoned copy editing altogether. But while it was in use, it helped us recruit people who gave The Baltimore Sun a national reputation as a newspaper that took editing seriously. People we hired, trained, and mentored are working today as editors at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications. 


  1. "No matter what your interest, from fun and free family activities to competitive pet and pie eating contests, you're sure to find something distinctive at Mount Airy's annual Spring Fling festival this weekend." Did I write this, do you recall? John Eckberg

  2. I don't recall the source, and if I did I would be reluctant to make it public. The copy editor protects the guilty.

  3. Them was days. When I worked at the News & Observer in the 1990s the editors developed a math test for the reporters to take. Things like the difference between three times more than and three times as much as, what you ended up with if you added 25 percent to an amount and then reduced the resulting amount by 25 percent, how old you were if you were born in November 1958 and died in October 1993. Mean, median, mode. Stuff like that. As you can well imagine, those who complained most bitterly that the test was useless were the ones who needed it the most.

    1. One of the best studies of newsroom numeracy literacy was done at the N&O. Required reading in my editing class. The upshot:
      -- Reporters: We don't have time to check the math. That's the desk's job.
      -- Copy editors: It should be the reporters' job, first and foremost.
      -- Managers: We do check the math, don't we?

  4. The general knowledge questions seem frankly quite easy. The iceberg question is a bit tricky, as it isn't in most people's active vocabulary. Were I taking the test, I would pass over that question secure in the knowledge that it would pop into my head in about half an hour. I know the difference between the two bankruptcy chapters, but I am less secure about which is which. I just looked it up. My guess was wrong. Did the format allow for partial credit? Similarly with mantel and mantle, though I guess right, as "mantle" looks more familiar and has the more commonly used sense. It is hard to be sure, but I think I would have found this easy in my twenties, even without my vast accumulation of knowledge since then.

    The grammar section would scare me. Between outright myths about grammar and confusion between grammar and what the house style guide mandates, these often turn into a test of guessing the test maker's ideology. But the example you give is fine. My wife grew up in Mount Airy. I will have to ask her about those pet eating contests. If this really is what is tested, rather than split infinitives and terminal prepositions, then go forth and multiply.

    The third part, with the story about the pond, also concerns me. Was it made clear to the candidate that "fine as submitted" or "needs only minor tweaks" were options? I can totally see someone who in fact thought it was fine understanding going to town to be the assigned task.

  5. I'm an editor at a daily newspaper north of the border. Would love to see the Canuck equivalent of this test because I tanked some of the U.S.-focused questions here and feel a need to redeem myself.

    (At the risk of he-doth-protest-too-much, I just checked and "pocket veto in Canada" with quotes returned exactly zero hits on Google, which makes me feel a bit better about things. Also, imperial measurements are frankly bonkers. My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that's the way I likes it!)