Monday, February 27, 2023

The question

Gather around, children, and let the Old Editor tell you a story from the Before Times about how copy editing is more than messing with commas. 

It was a Friday night at The Baltimore Sun, and the copy desk had finished with the daily edition and turned its attention to the Sunday sections for the advance press run. 

Two copy editors came to the Old Editor to announce a problem with a story scheduled for a Sunday section front, a story written by a reporter with more than two decades' experience at the paper, moved to the copy desk by the department head. 

Actually, more than one problem. The structure, if anything so chaotically organized could be said to have a structure, deposited the summary sentence identifying the focus of the story in the eleventh paragraph, after which the story proceeded in a completely different direction. 

But the touchy point was that one source accused four persons, by name, of actions that appeared to be criminal conduct, without any supporting evidence. And the accuser, the story said, had been called, by anonymous sources (!), senile.

 "What do you want to do?" the copy editor asked. The reporter and assigning editor were unavailable, deadline was looming, and there was nothing on hand to replace the dubious story on the Sunday section front. 

"Cut everything that is libelous and publish the rest," the Old Editor said. "It won't make much sense, but our readers are used to that."

If we had published that thing as sent to us in Sunday's editions, on Monday the principal concern in the publisher's mind would have been how many zeros to put to the left of the decimal on the settlement check. Instead on Monday, the Old Editor took the story as submitted into the editor's office and said, as they say on Law and Order, "Please read the highlighted portions." 

The two copy editors who raised the alarm were given citations by the publisher, and the reporter and assigning editor were invited into the editor's office for a little chat. 

(I used that story, with substitutions for all the proper nouns, for years in my editing class and workshops. Many jaws dropped.)

Mike Waller, The Sun's former publisher, came up through the ranks, including the copy desk at the Louisville Courier-Journal in its glory days. He used to say that copy editors are there to ask questions, and the most valuable question a copy editor can ask is "Are you sure you want to do that? Are you really sure?" 

Today at publications that determined copy editing to be an expensive frill, there's no one to ask that question. 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

What to do with all those young people

 Recently the Associated Press Stylebook issued guidance to avoid using the with nouns referring to groups of people, such as "the mentally ill" or "the disabled," as potentially dehumanizing. (The initial tweet included "the French," for which they were thoroughly razzed.) 

People in social service agencies and organizations have grown terribly fond of using youth to refer to young people,"young people" or "adolescents" or "teens" being apparently insufficiently officious. I'd like to suggest that that, too, is potentially dehumanizing language. And if not dehumanizing, at least awkward outside government reports and other repositories of too-starchy English.

Oh, I don't mind all that much as a collective noun for the overall population in that age range--"services for youth," "youth employment," "children and youth involved with law enforcement," that sort of language. 

But I also see it used indiscriminately, and echoed by journalists, for discrete groups, for individuals: "group of 15 youth, 2 adults," for example. This is just irritating and unnecessary. 

If we need an overall term for the collective group and individuals, perhaps we should emulate the example of Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny and call them yutes.  

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The name of the game: You Can't Win

 A colleague laments: "Copy editing is not a job for the fainthearted. You catch and fix hundreds of typos and grammatical mistakes every week, but miss one tiny thing and some reader fires off a caustic email about how much you suck."

Those are the kind of letters and messages forwarded to me when I oversaw The Sun's copy desk (when The Sun still had a copy desk). They fall into categories.

The first, and smallest, is actual factual error, which I would have to confirm, then write a correction and submit it to my betters for approval for publication. While newspapers do not employ fact checkers, it was the duty of copy editors to identify and correct errors of fact whenever possible. (I remember a reporter who misspelled the name of a public official fourteen times in a single article. We, of course, fixed it, and commented on the desk that his having misspelled the name the same way fourteen times marked an advance in proficiency.) 

Then the submissions from skilled observers who spot typos and the other small change of errors. You know, to for too, absent or misplaced hyphens, lead for led or other mistaken homonyms. Before you write to complain that you saw it's for its and ask whether the writers and editors have attended college, a reminder or two would be apt. The first is that journalistic enterprises, in print and online, produce a large volume of prose in a short time; errors are inevitable, and the most that even a skilled copydesk can do is to reduce them to a minimum. The second is that copy editors are skilled readers, and the brains of skilled readers have an autocorrect more sophisticated than the one on your computer. The eye registers a to or it's in the text, but the brain interpreting the data expects too or its in that construction and moves on. (This is why in the lost past at The Sun we had every story read by at least three editors before publication, and it was not uncommon for the printer doing pasteup to remark, "You see what you assholes missed this time?")

 The most frustrating category comes from the reader who triumphantly pounces on some error that is not an error, a violation of some schoolroom shibboleth (none as a plural, a terminal preposition, data as a singular -- I have catalogued a number of them in my little book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing). Since readers who take the trouble to write are entitled to a response, I would patiently explain, with citations, why the supposed rule is bogus, usually receiving a response reminding me of Dr. Johnson's observation that we are "more pained by ignorance, than delighted by instruction."

Oddly, the largest category of things the copy desk did not fix never generated any letters of complaint. I am thinking of slack writing, lack of focus, the story that meanders for half a dozen paragraphs before getting to the point, impenetrable copspeak (Was that altercation a shouting match, shoving, a fistfight, or exchange of gunfire?), and misjudged literary effects. (God's truth, I was once confronted by a reporter who insisted, "It's not a cliche when I use it.") Readers may not read analytically in the way that editors and copy editors do, but they can tell when the stuff does not interest, and then they just stop. You never hear from the readers you lose. 

At my blog, which was published at from 2005 to 2021 and here since 2009, I never had a copy editor, and all my errors have been my own. It appears that there are few actions that generate more pleasure than pointing out a copy editor's error. 

Go for it.