Our love/hate relationship with the copy desk

The decision of Dean Baquet and other leaders at The New York Times to ditch and switch some copy editors has caused a donnybrook.

The copy editors are angry and worried; so is their union; so are other editorial workers at the Times, who fear the erosion of standards with fewer green eyeshades on the job; and so are the traditionalists – young and old – who suffer from the myth of a golden age.

I am one of these traditionalists. My work needs more eyeballs not less (I mean fewer). But there are some facts about the relationship between writers and copy editors that must be told even in this Summer of (copy editor) Love.

Let’s admit:

– Copy editors have been known to introduce factual mistakes into copy. I once wrote about a clever kid named Mark, who became Mary in the story. “How the hell did that happen?” the copy chief asked me. “You tell me,” was my riposte.

– There are copy editors who have what my father used to call a “tin ear.” These are the ones who used to cut for space without consultation and with little or no regard to the way a sentence “sounded” on the page. Mike O’Neill, the former great editor of the New York Daily News, once invited his editing team to a meeting “wearing blindfolds.” His point was that they should be editing copy with their ears as well as their eyes.

Related Training: ACES Advanced Editing Certificate

– There are copy editors who have turned adherence to the AP Stylebook into a fetish – a Kama Sutra for the prescriptive mind. My advice is to follow style books as far as they will lead you, but to abandon consistency when it benefits the reader.

– There are copy editors who are blind to the value of specificity. “Why do we need to say they were eating ‘Froot Loops’? Why can’t we just say ‘cereal’?”

My good friend Tom French wrote a story in the St. Petersburg Times that would become the book “Zoo Story.” One of the characters in the story is a famous chimpanzee named Herman. Each of the 1,800 animals at the zoo is given a number corresponding to the chronology of his entrance into the population. Herman’s was 00001. I use that number in my classes as an example of good reporting and the use of telling detail.

One copy editor didn’t get the need for all those zeros. Why not just say “His number was 1.” “So,” I responded. “What are you going to call James Bond? Seven?”

At every newspaper I have ever visited, the writers and reporters, and many of the assigning editors, had complaints about the copy desk – including, I must say, at The New York Times. They used “the desk” as one of the reasons they could not get their best work in the paper. Given the nature of their complaints, writers might be expected to feel liberated from the process of nudging and nagging that constitutes a copy desk. Remember the old rhyme that kids sang at the end of the school year: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks…” as the old school rhyme would say – using the Oxford comma.

The current buy-outs and loss of good jobs for copy editors puts The New York Times behind the curve. Many editors in newspapers large and small have gone bye-bye for one reason or another. Desks have been consolidated within papers and across newspaper groups.

When I heard this, I argued that copy editors needed to live and work in the towns where the paper circulated. I argued on NPR that in St. Petersburg, Florida, we needed copy editors who knew that 62nd Avenue South was parallel to 62nd Avenue North and that baseball star Evan Longoria was not related to movie star Eva Longoria.

The results are obvious: I have no data to support this, but those of us who read newspapers carefully see more mistakes. Most of these are little ones: missing words, misspellings, the same story appearing in two sections of the paper. But the subliminal message is that the tiny holes in the sieve have grown larger, and more sludge is oozing in.

I have written often about my fondness with copy editors, including in this 2010 appreciation for one of my own Here's some of what I wrote then:

My eccentric love affair with copy editors derives from a formative trauma I experienced when I was in grammar school in 1958. I was a Catholic school kid living on Long Island, and each day I would watch this cute and cool teenage girl strut home from her bus stop. I never learned her name, but her nickname was 'Angel Face,' a fitting title she had painted across the back of her brown leather jacket. My desire for this teen angel grew and grew until the day Mom pointed out that the girl of my dreams had misspelled her nickname. Instead of 'Angel Face,' she had marked 'Angle (A-N-G-L-E) Face' on her jacket. I could never look at her the same way again.

As an author, I've always felt the need for guardian angels, and these days her name is Marie Salter, an ace copy editor for Little, Brown, and the human safety net for my last two books: Writing Tools and, now, The Glamour of Grammar. All authors are vulnerable to their own careless mistakes, but none more so than those who presume to write about the English language. The more prescriptive the grammar, the more likely the author will dangle an infinitive or split a participle. The effect is the same as when the puritanical preacher gets arrested for solicitation.

Writers cannot be trusted to heal themselves, so is there a copy editor in the house?

In her attention to the 300-page manuscript of 'The Glamour of Grammar,' Marie played many roles: spell checker, style maven, syntax straighten-outer, fact checker, reader channeler, and pruner of dead words. In a delicate hand, she left hundreds of penciled questions in the margins, a form of response designed to assure me that her job was not to seize control of the text, but to help me reach its unrealized potential. Here's just one question, for page 42:

This didn't occur to me the last time through, but 'name etymologies' suggests 'the origins of a name.' In the text you're describing how to use proper names to create new words (i.e., eponyms), not how names are derived. OK to change instances of 'name etymologies' to 'eponyms?'

Not only was it okay, but after learning from Marie about eponyms, I invented a name for a group of men throughout history who had lent their names to new words: 'The Boys from Eponyma.'

But wait, there's more.

Marie identified about a dozen cases in which I violated my own advice, at times on the very page where that advice appears.

She saved me from my own ignorance, as when she corrected my misunderstanding of the difference between an ellipsis (three dots) and an ellipsis point or mark (one dot).

She challenged me on my theory that all abbreviations expressed in capital letters (FBI, IBM, LOL) could now be described as 'acronyms' rather than the old-fashioned and little understood term 'initialism.'

...Such hawk-eyed editing soars against the theory that all forms of editing are in decline, the victim of a weak economy and the staff cuts that have followed. I see more evidence in books, magazines, and newspapers that there are fewer and fewer eyeballs on a page before it sees the light of day.

Thankfully, I am the happy beneficiary of an enlightened publisher who supports my work with a team of accomplished editors—or as I like to think of them, guardian angels.

Let me conclude with a reflection upon why writers who often complain about copy editors now feel so sympathetic to their plight. My guess is that it falls into the category of athletes who come to appreciate the rigorous demands of a tough coach; or the college math student who finally understands that teacher who gave so much calculus homework; or even the soldier in the foxhole who says a prayer in thanks for a harsh drill sergeant.

For the record, I first spelled that word ‘sargeant,’ but the spelling checker caught it in the blink of an eye. So maybe we don’t need copy editors after all.

Yeah, right.

Correction: A well-meaning editor changed the original "Froot Loops" in this story to "Fruit Loops." It has been fixed. We apologize for the error and knew, since this story was about copy editing, that at least one would likely appear.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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