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Those amazing wordsmiths

A short guide to the zoology of newspaper writers. I did not originally intend to post this but have been prevailed upon to do so by some of the readers who requested private copies.

The Crown Prince and/or The Princess Royal

The prize bull and prize heifer of the sacred cattle have typically won prizes — real prizes, sometimes with money attached, not the stuff that state press associations hand out like candy corn at Halloween. Consequently, they have been exempted from routine work. Production of a story, once or twice a year, is an event in the newsroom.

Mute Inglorious Milton

Mute Inglorious Milton has the misfortune to work on a beat or a section largely ignored by the rest of the paper. He/she may be diligent and accurate, may even be able to write clearly, but there is no chance that he/she will ever be summoned from the suburbs to work downtown, much less ever become The Crown Prince or The Princess Royal.

The Supreme Pontificator

As a writer of analyses or reviews and a master of the Authoritative Tone, The Supreme Pontificator has no peer. He/she has never been wrong. Or at least has never acknowledged a misjudgment. Moreover, he/she speaks ex cathedra on any subject in any article. Read his/her articles to learn what God would think if God had the inside information.

The Supreme Pontificator is destined to become a distinguished member of the Columntern (See below).

Who Touched My Story

Who Touched My Story will demand an accounting of every keystroke during the editing of his/her story, often calling the copy desk on edition deadline with this inquiry. Who Touched will contest every attempt to untangle syntax or regularize a mixed metaphor. Corrections of errors of fact will not be met with gratitude.

Who Touched has become such a nuisance that assigning editors have given up the struggle. His/her copy is subjected to peristalsis rather than editing, and when a copy editor has the temerity to raise a question, Who Touched will answer, "My editor thought that this story was fine. Why are you questioning it?"

Mirror, Mirror

"Did you read my story? What did you think of my story? Did you like it better than yesterday’s story? What was your favorite passage? What’s the headline on my story going to say? Is it on Page One? Why isn’t it on Page One?"

Mirror, Mirror is apparently unaware that anyone else is writing or that the paper and its editors have any concerns apart from the burnishing of his/her article.

By the Word

By the Word believes that a 1,500-word story is, by definition, twice as good as a 750-word story. Accordingly, an article on some continuing story with three paragraphs of incremental developments will be padded out with a couple of dozen paragraphs taken from the archive. By the Word is particularly deadly when covering crime and courts, because a story on the third day of jury selection will require a recapitulation of the complete circumstances of the original crime, with context taking the reader back to the time Cain smacked Abel.

The Duckbilled Platitude

The Duckbilled Platitude never met a cliche he/she didn’t like. But he/she is as busy as a one-armed paperhanger. At the end of the day, racing against the clock, he gives 110 percent trying to find the smoking gun. And the next day he is back in the saddle again. Trying to get Duckbilled to give up cliches is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Columnist Party Apparatchik

The members of the Columntern write about their children, their pets, their interminable waits queuing up with the rabble at the motor vehicle bureau. When whimsical, they write columns that Dave Barry might have been able to make funny. When channeling Walter Winchell, they produce little apercus and apothegms about life, held together with ellipses and spit.

When one Apparatchik achieves the status of Supreme Pontificator and takes one of his/her extended vacations, the paper reprints past columns.

The Columntern is not subject to editing, because, as Anthony Trollope said, "One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it." Or more simply, as Don Hebb put it, "What’s not worth doing is not worth doing well."

High Camp

High Camp has learned from colleagues, taking the Authoritative Tone from The Supreme Pontificator, adopting the self-absorption of Mirror, Mirror, appropriating the gift of unoriginality from The Duckbilled Platitude, and experimenting with the risible pretensions of Goodbye English Prose (See below), he/she confects a rococo prose unlike anything else on land or sea. Many writers talk about developing a voice; High Camp has Voice. The effect is very much like what P.G. Wodehouse or S.J. Perlman might have accomplished if they had taken no account of the actual meanings of words.

High Camp flowers in features sections.

Plain But Earnest

Plain But Earnest is diligent, so diligent that if he/she were any more productive it would sink the whole operation. Plain But files every day, sometimes more than once. Everything in Plain But’s notes goes into the story — stray details of no particular moment, meaningless quotes ("But he said it"). Plain But has no literary aspirations. In fact, the only structural principle Plain But has mastered in constructing an article is randomness.

Goodbye English Prose

Goodbye English Prose is all literary, all flair, all the time, operating under the misapprehension that he/she is creating for the newspaper what H.L. Mencken called "beautiful letters." Goodbye English loves metaphors, no matter how strained or grotesquely inappropriate to the subject. Goodbye English will drag in the most obvious allusions or quotations from English literature to demonstrate that he/she is an educated/cultivated/sophisticated/sensitive artist.

An editor who questions Goodbye English’s fulsome effects will witness an instant metamorphosis into Who Touched My Story.

Disclosures and disclaimers

"Duckbilled platitude" is borrowed from a poem by E.E. Cummings (NOT e.e. cummings, dammit). "Goodbye English prose" was the headline suggested by an Australian journalist during a workshop featuring a particularly overripe specimen. And "mute inglorious Milton" is, of course, taken from Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a poem once familiar to just about anyone who had made it all the way through high school, but now, sadly, no longer so.

Reporters/writers reading this posting should be aware that the archetypes described here were developed out of more than a quarter-century’s experience as a newspaper copy editor and should not necessarily be identified with any specific person working within striking distance of my office.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:53 AM | | Comments (2)


Hehe... one suspects it wouldn't be TOO difficult to adapt this list to just about any collegial working environment.... : )

Priceless! Makes one's mind race through the line-up of current and former colleagues to see who fits where.

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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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