February 7, 2005

During my editing days at the Los Angeles Times, in an effort to bring civility to the relationship between the City Desk and the Copy Desk, I asked a Copy Desk supervisor, Mike Castelvecchi, to join me in compiling a list of wants and needs that might help the two sides respect each other more.

I knew this was both a good idea and probably a futile one when one copy editor messaged back this poignant request to the city desk editors: “Learn our names.”

Nevertheless, in the spirit of optimism, here are 10 requests from both sides.

Ten Things Copy Editors Want from Line Editors:

1. We realize you need to be an advocate for the reporters and encourage them to take risks but have the courage to tell them when their stories don’t work.

2. Stylish writing is invalidated by bad grammar, bad spelling and other rudimentary flaws.

3. Encourage more hard-news leads. Our overuse of anecdotal or feature-style leads — particularly ones that are too long — tends to make the newspaper insubstantial.

4. If a high-level editor has ordained that something in the story is sacred, clue us in so it won’t get cut in a pinch.

5. Try to avoid being defensive when we ask a question that challenges a story. We don’t mean it personally. The same way reporters bring a sense of skepticism to the way they view the world, we must bring a similar sensibility to each story we edit as the last line of defense. The fresh eye we bring to a story — even one that has been edited by five senior editors — is an insurance policy that the story won’t leave tomorrow’s reader with unanswered questions or uncertainties.

6. Check your math. Make sure the numbers, percentages, ratios and rates add up.

7. Stick to deadline, and put more pressure on your reporters to follow it. Do a better job of filing non-deadline features or news stories between 2 and 4 p.m. The copy desk’s performance (and happiness) is directly related to the crush of late copy.

8. Do a spelling check on each story, and make sure your reporters know how to do this. It saves us all time, and eliminates the name that is spelled two different ways.

9. Take an hour to review the newspaper’s stylebook. A lot of our time is taken up correcting simple style errors. The more time we save on that, the more we have for more substantial editing and headlines.

10. Remember courtesy and professional respect. We’re not the enemy. We are all working toward the same goals: accuracy and a better paper.

Ten Things Line Editors Want from Copy Editors:

1. Remember courtesy and professional respect. We’re not the enemy. We are all working toward the same goals: accuracy and a better paper.

2. Appreciate that when we miss deadline it’s often because of circumstances we can’t control, and that the story would be more time-consuming for you were we to file prematurely.

3. Try to phrase your questions so that the discussion is about the story, not the writer or the editor.

4. When you deal with a reporter directly, remember that many of these people are not as good orally as they are when they are expressing themselves in writing. Also remember that behind some of the arrogance is an insecure person.

5. Try to edit holistically. A phrase that, taken by itself, might seem odd or incomplete may well make sense to the reader in the context or tone of the paragraphs that came before.

6. Don’t be so literal all the time. We know — and welcome — the fact that you need to read a story as literally as the reader will. But we also know that readers make allowances if the writer prepares them properly, or handles the story with a sense of style.

7. Let us have that sense of style. A writer should be able to use the expression “…doesn’t float her boat” without having it automatically changed to “…fails to enthrall her.” Some years ago, a line editor — I can’t recall who it was — underlined this point by recalling a story in which a writer used ”air guitar” as a verb, as in ”he couldn’t resist the urge to air guitar…” I’d seen air guitar in print before but not as a verb, and I was delighted that it made it into print. I don’t want things to get out of control, but I like it when a writer tries coining a new phrase or even a new word. We should be willing to accept such attempts at word play or at least not toss them aside immediately.

8. Rather than just delete such attempts at wordcraft, it would be handy if the copy editor consulted with the line editor on such things and not just the heavy-duty issues of libel and accuracy.

9. When you want to make a change, explain your context. If you can explain what triggered your concern, it’s sometimes an easier sell because it puts the discussion in the context of how readers will react.

10. Accept that some reporters deserve higher levels of trust because of the way they have mastered their beats. A reporter who has clearly demonstrated his or her knowledge in the past should be able to write with a level of authority that involves less point by point attribution than would be expected from a newcomer on a beat. 

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Reporter, editor and writing coach for 34 years, 26 at the Los Angeles Times, where I left in 2004. Author, "Newsthinking: The Secret of Making…
Bob Baker

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