How to Edit Copy and Influence People
No matter what kind of organization we work for, of what size, we copy editors have much more in common than we have that divides us. I'll admit there were moments at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, March 18–20 in Houston, when this wasn't obvious to me. For instance, a couple of sessions focused on the duties of "rims" and "slots" (if you're curious, see www.theslot.com for definitions). And one evening over drinks I learned about the wonders of the CCI database. These tend to be preoccupations of copy editors at daily newspapers. So, although I have experience with weekly newspapers as well as newsletters, magazines, books, and corporate publications, I sometimes found myself in unfamiliar territory.
Not without reason. ACES grew out of a series of conferences about copy editing sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1995 and 1996. It is now a well-established group in its own right, welcoming "journalistic" copy editors and people in related jobs for full membership (for information, visit www.copydesk.org). Still, it remains chiefly focused on the copy editing of daily newspapers. And it's a standout in its field, each year attracting nationally recognized authorities as speakers at its conference.
My goal was to listen to as many of these authorities as I could and gather ideas that might benefit almost any copy editor anywhere. I came away with a dozen ideas — half of them about doing good work and half about feeling great about what you do.
Doing good work
1. "Be assertive," John S. Carroll, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, urged participants in a session he led on ethics. He gave this advice when the discussion turned to a publication's credibility and the copy editor's role in maintaining it. To be assertive in a productive way, Carroll explained, means showing interest in the reasons for practices and policies before calling them into question. And it means being diplomatic. Carroll warned, "You have to build up relationships, so you're not just coming up to a person for the first time and saying 'Your story is terrible.'"
2. "Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win." The author and educator Jonathan Kozol originally said it, and John E. McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun and the president of ACES, quoted this wonderful bit of advice at his session titled "Seeing the Forest Through the Trees," about "macro-editing."
3. Be a writing coach. McIntyre suggested this in his session, as did Paula LaRocque in hers, which was titled "Secrets of Good Editing"; LaRocque is a former writing coach and assistant managing editor at The Dallas Morning News. Thinking of ourselves as writing coaches and acting accordingly may benefit us and any writers we regularly work with who make the same mistakes again and again. "Otherwise," McIntyre said, "you're just going to be cleaning up after these people forever."
4. Take readability formulas seriously. This was another suggestion of Paula LaRocque's. A sizable majority of people, studies have shown, are unable to comprehend writing unless it's rated at or below the 10th-grade level by a standard readability formula. "No subject is so complicated that you can't get there," LaRocque said. The shorter the sentences and words, the lower the grade level will be. Microsoft Word can compute the grade level of a piece of writing after you run its grammar checker. (But see "What counts," about the strengths and weaknesses of various readability calculators, including Word's, in the February–March 2003 Copy Editor.)
5. "Don't live in a house of rules; live in a house of guidelines." This advice, too, came from LaRocque. For instance, she advised us to avoid having more than three prepositional phrases in a sentence and, similarly, to avoid having more than three numbers in a sentence. These are not recommendations to be followed for their own sake. LaRocque's point was that sentences with more than three prepositional phrases in them, or more than three numbers, tend to be hard to follow. If you come across one that's clear, then another aphorism of hers applies: "Don't change things that don't need to be changed."
6. Learn from your most capable colleagues. "Morale: Who Needs It?" covered many ways to make everybody feel better, but this session—led by Melissa McCoy, the assistant managing editor for the copy desks at the Los Angeles Times, and Arlene Schneider, who recruits copy editors for The New York Times—also presented some ways we might enhance our skills. McCoy argued that we all know who is the best in our organization at repairing faulty grammar, doing substantive editing, writing headlines, or whatever else needs to be done. Why not acknowledge those people's expertise and ask them to teach their skills to the rest of us at in-house training sessions?
Feeling great about what you do
7. Recognition is always nice. In their session on morale, McCoy and Schneider emphasized how much it can mean to individual copy editors and to the copy desk when the organization — or at least the big boss — shows appreciation for good, hard work. Imagine that an article from your organization has just won an award, McCoy and Schneider proposed. If you're a copy-editing supervisor, make sure that others know about the role your staff played in earning that award. Or if you have a supervisor who, for whatever reason, doesn't do that, make sure that the upper echelons remember your contribution. One technique, according to Schneider, is to go up to the editor-in-chief when everyone has gotten together to celebrate winning the award, shake his or her hand, and say, "Thank you. I really enjoyed working on that."
8. The more recognition the better. Both McCoy's paper, the L.A. Times, and Schneider's, The New York Times, present in-house awards to copy editors, some of which come with financial rewards attached.
Before joining the staff of the Times, Schneider worked at smaller newspapers, where the only prizes she was able to hand out to subordinates, she said, were coupons good for meals at McDonald's or video rentals. All the same, she handed them out regularly. If you do have an award program, she advised, beware of always giving the prizes to hotshots. Make sure that the dependable workhorses in the department also get their share of recognition.
9. Whenever possible, be flexible. McCoy and Schneider had many stories about steps they've taken to be considerate of copy editors as human beings. Sometimes editors at their papers are given opportunities to take on new challenges, working in different roles on different copy desks. Sometimes work schedules are rejiggered to accommodate an editor with personal needs — for example, a mother who wants to get home early as many nights a week as possible to be with her young children. So long as the organization's rules aren't being bent unfairly or arbitrarily, nothing but good can come of treating copy editors like people.
10. Build accountability into your system. Because its job is to make changes, often on tight deadlines, in work done by others, the copy desk is frequently in danger of being perceived as the place where mistakes originate. "When finger-pointing is going on," McCoy advised, "make sure you know who did what. Don't let the copy editors take the blame for things they didn't do." At the L.A. Times, the various electronic drafts of pieces are retained until well after the paper is published, so that who was responsible for every word can be determined if need be.
11. Keep your sense of humor. As far as I recall, this isn't something that any of the speakers recommended. But every one of them illustrated the principle, relishing the humor in even the most dire situations they described.
12. Keep your sense of empathy. No sooner had certain speakers — no names here! — finished skewering an incompetent writer than they'd turn around and explain what the object of their ridicule must have been thinking to write something so dreadful. I was impressed.
Throughout the conference I heard a lot of talk about working collaboratively with writers. If we're willing to collaborate and empathize only with top-flight writers — heady though the experience might be — it's self-serving of us. If we can empathize with writers who are reaching above and beyond themselves, and failing, and if we can help them succeed, we're doing work we should be proud of.
Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and the editor-in-chief of the newsletter Copy Editor. Author photo by Ken Easley. This article originally appeared in the April-May issue of Copy Editor.