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.