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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.