Saturday, February 24, 2024

My life as a drudge

 February 8 marked forty-four years since I began work as a copy editor. 

The Cincinnati Enquirer took a risk in hiring a fugitive graduate student for the copy desk, where I absorbed the principles and customs of the work from colleagues like Phil Fisher, slotman Bill Trutner, and news editor Bob Johnson. My colleagues were, typically of copy desks, smart, competent, and irreverent. 

After six and a half years on the desk, I made good my escape from Gannett. The saloon where my colleagues gathered for the farewell to McIntyre party turned out to be the same saloon where the city editor had scheduled a good riddance to McIntyre party. Awkward. At least for those who came through the door and realized that a choice had to be made. 

Then thirty-four years as a disciple of Andy Faith on the desk at The Baltimore Sun, which when it was in funds gave me a free hand to hire, train, and mentor the smartest editors I could find. We had a grand time and a national reputation until the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. Tribune Publishing eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and I spent two years as a "content editor," viz., a processor of copy rather than an editor. 

Now in retirement, I mark two years this month as a freelance copy editor for the online nonprofit Baltimore Banner, where the work is as rewarding as it first was more than four decades ago. 

"Rewarding, huh?" you ask. "Weren't you just a comma jockey? You just called yourself a drudge." 

I have to concede that regularizing other people's erratic punctuation, though necessary, was not the most gratifying aspect of the job. Nor was correcting the spelling of names. (We had a reporter who once misspelled the name of the U.S. attorney for Maryland fourteen times, but because he misspelled it the same way fourteen times we took it as an advance in his technique.) 

 But untangling syntax, tightening loose prose, making sure the elements were in the proper order, clarifying murky points, and occasionally taking my hands off the keyboard (when something good required no further work) provided satisfactions way beyond commas. 

Every time I opened a story, my question was what is this writer trying to do, and how can I assist them in achieving their purpose while serving the readers' interests. And every time I shipped a story on to publication, I wanted to say it had been done shipshape and Bristol fashion. 

That's the job: leave it better than you found it. 


  1. I tried to teach the people who worked for me on the copy desk everything I knew. But now it seems like I was teaching them cursive handwriting or touch typing or driving a stick shift. It had some utility at the time, but it carries little value now.

  2. When did it become acceptable to tell an editor, as I was told last week: "I really, really don't like this?" or, to my mind, worse yet: "Grammatical corrections are ok, though not necessary. I would prefer my piece stay exactly as I wrote it. "

  3. Thanks for remembering me, John. I always thought you’d have a fine career in editing, but you surpassed even those high expectations. You were a leader and spokesman for our underappreciated profession. It was a pleasure to honor you at your Cincinnati farewell, even with the awkwardness at the other side of the bar.

  4. I was a pleasure to learn the craft from you and work with you, Phil. We held the line.

  5. Would I have passed the editing test if I'd written, "I'd ask if we could spike this version for first edition and lobby quietly to just use the NYT version until the desk could have a little bit of whatever it was the harried wire editor was smoking"?