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.