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Linnaeus on the copy desk

Since copy editors are anonymous, many readers of this blog can have little idea of what they are like. For their benefit, and for the amusement of the copy editors who do look in here, I’ve compiled a partial catalogue of the denizens of the desk.

The Pouncer

The Pouncer takes his motto from Gore Vidal: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." When the Pouncer discovers an error in a story, he brandishes it aloft and proclaims it. The error is like the dead bird your cat deposits on your doorstep to show how hunting is done.

Because the Pouncer is smart, he is usually right. Unfortunately, he has to establish his own worth every night by showing the defects of others. So if nothing substantial presents itself, he will take a story and worry it like a terrier with a rat until he can make an issue of something.

He is beloved by reporters and assigning editors alike.

By the Book

You can predict all the changes By the Book makes in copy. Since always becomes because, half an acre becomes a half-acre, and attorney becomes lawyer (or maybe the reverse). No sentence ends with a preposition, and neither does any line of a headline. Everything for By the Book is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong; there is always a correct way to do everything, and everything must be made correct. By the Book’s copy of the AP Stylebook (copyright 1982) has been annotated more comprehensively than the Talmud.

Thanks for Sharing

"Hey, this obituary has a funny line in it."

"Did you see what Wall Street said about the company stock on Romenesko today?"

"Here’s a real cute picture of a cat wearing a bonnet." (Why, on edition deadline, is she looking at Internet images of cats?)

The big-hearted Thanks for Sharing can’t keep anything to herself. If it’s unusual, or amusing, or heart-wrenching, she has to let you know about it because you might otherwise miss it. Never mind that you are — what do we call it? — working.

Mote Man

The devil is in the details, and Mote Man is on the lookout for the devil. He, like Gilbert’s Major-General Stanley "knows the kings of England, and he quotes the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical." If the story says that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mote Man knows that Constantine established a toleration of Christianity. If the story says that John F. Kennedy was the youngest man to become president of the United States, he knows that Theodore Roosevelt was younger when McKinley was assassinated. Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected president.

But since Mote Man’s attention is devoted entirely to recondite distinctions, he is capable of sending through a story about Iran bearing a 48-point headline that says Iraq.

Speed Demon

Speed Demon can turn a story around faster than anyone else on the desk. If you hand Speed Demon a page proof, it will be returned to you marked "OK" before you have been able to sit down again. Speed Demon handles twice as much copy as any other editor on the desk, and is quite proud of that.

Speed Demon also lets through twice as many errors as anyone else on the desk.

Stuck in First

Sitting near Speed Demon is Stuck in First. As one colleague once said of another, "He only has one gear." (And don’t write in to tell me that that should read "has only one gear." Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much, and besides, IT’S A DIRECT QUOTE.) Every story that passes through Stuck in First’s hands is meticulously edited, clean and correct. And if you can pry two or three stories out of those slow-moving fingers by edition close, it is a good night.

The Correspondent

If you sit near the Correspondent, you hear her busy fingers on the keyboard, tappity-tappity-tappity-TAP. And you think, that’s good. Busy at work. Should be able to close the edition early tonight. Then you notice that the Correspondent has been working for 45 minutes on a routine 12-column-inch wire service article on the discovery that it gets hot in the Midwest in the summertime. That’s when you realize that all that music of the keyboard has been Instant Messaging to friends, some of them probably also on the copy desk.

Team Player

Team Player designs dynamic pages, writes crisp headlines, and sets priorities under deadline pressure. A self-starter, Team Player acts proactively to take action, communicates effectively with stakeholders, and displays a positive attitude. Team Player has broad editing experience, excellent news judgment and leadership skills and a desire to innovate. Team Player understands and embraces the company’s core mission, values and goals.


The Zoo

Now don’t get me started about the reporters.


I am Pouncer, Speed Demon, Mote Man, Thanks for Sharing, Correspondent, By the Book and, sometimes, Stuck in First. I have at one time or another displayed all these behaviors. Learning humility is easy on a copy desk, because in identifying the faults and failings of others, one holds up a mirror to oneself.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (1)


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Linnaeus on the copy desk:

» Carnival of the Editors from mike's web log
John McIntyre provides, for scientific purposes, a catalog of Redactus Domesticus[1], the common ccopy editor. Among the types he find in his net:The PouncerBy the BookThanks for SharingMote ManSpeed Demon [Read More]


Another one: The Grouch: He can list every fault of his employer/profession going back 30 years but has seems to have never given any thought to finding a job where he might be happy.

About The Grouch:

I considered included a category, the Grievance Collector, who can enumerate every slight, every failure of his masters to recognize and reward his tremendous abilities, every bone-headed move by newsroom or corporate managers that he could have advised against had he been consulted, over his entire professional career. But I omitted it because, instead of being am archetype among copy editors, the Grievance Collector is widespread among all journalists, and is particularly numerous in the reporting staff.

No copy desk would be complete without *The Pundit*, who emits loud, fervent, rambling, highly predictable commentary on every political story that comes across his screen. Deskmates are welcome to express their own personal political opinions, too, so long as they’re in lock step with The Pundit’s opinions and don’t interfere too much with his round-the-clock quest to be the center of attention.

A couple more from the online business:
The Sleepwalker: Motto in life is that since it is the Internet, there is nothing that can't be corrected at a later time. Always hopes a friendly colleague will point out a mistake, or better still, correct it for him.
Life revolves around wondering whether friendly colleague will reach there faster than the bosses or the readers, everytime.
Extremely dangerous with: Copies laden with facts and figures.

The DEBE: He Does Everything But Edit.
24-hour Internet access is the only reason he chose a news portal over a newspaper.
He blogs at blogger, wordpress, live journal and any other blogging platform, updates his personal site every 30 minutes and is a permanent fixture at most online gaming sites.

Extremely dangerous with: Breaking news copy.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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