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Here's the secret password

Professor Doug Fisher, proprietor of the Common Sense Journalism blog, is concerned that we copy editors do ourselves a disservice by allowing a perception to persist that we are a mysterious black box with workings that no one else can understand. To many at newspapers, we’re a bread machine: Someone puts in the ingredients and pushes a button, and at the appointed time a loaf comes out.

What prompted Brother Fisher’s ruminations was a blog post by Lynn Bering, freelance journalist in Clarion, Pa., who wrote: “Copy editors know stuff writers don’t. It’s like a secret society with complicated rules and secret handshakes. I am too impatient to be a copy editor and I lack the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing.”

Let me pull back the curtain. Copy editing is not like deciphering Babylonian cuneiform or reconstructing the genetic code. Like everything else in journalism, if it were too difficult, journalists couldn’t do it.

Copy editing is editing. The copy editor looks at a text and asks really obvious and simple-minded questions: Is this accurate? Is this clear? Where does this information come from? (These are also the questions that good writers pose to themselves.)

Yes, copy editors also address the structure and organization of articles, but the arsenal of devices available to journalists is not extensive. One police story, one obituary, one profile is very much like all the others. Journalistic articles are basically a series of set forms that are easy to imitate. That is how they can be produced rapidly.

And copy editors concern themselves with grammar and usage. Once again, one does not need an advanced degree in linguistics to parse the sentences in newspaper articles. The grammar I learned from Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig in grades five through eight in public schools in Fleming County, Kentucky, in the1960s is surprisingly adequate for most purposes in newspaper editing.

The copy desk also has to code articles for typesetting. I hate to be tiresomely repetitive, but if newspaper pagination systems were really difficult to master, journalists couldn’t manage them.

The specialization in copy editing does not rise from arcane knowledge but from uncommon temperament.

The best copy editors are mildly obsessive-compulsive; they are driven to see that the details are right. Mildly obsessive-compulsive, because if they weren’t obsessive to a degree, they wouldn’t care; and because if they were too obsessive, they’d never be able finish editing a text.

Copy editors work anonymously. No one outside the newspaper knows who they are or what they do, and it’s not uncommon at some papers for senior managers to be unable to identify them by name. If you think that a 10-line news brief is incomplete without your name at the end, you probably have no business on the copy desk.

Copy editors work under pressure. Reporters kvetch about deadlines, but copy editors actually have to meet theirs. There is never enough time to do everything that ought to be done, much less what one would like to do, so copy editors, like emergency room personnel, are constantly calculating triage.

The flaw in the copy editor personality — the urgent issue to address — is the naïve but touching belief that doing a job conscientiously and well is all that is necessary to be appreciated by one’s employer.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (8)


This is an encouraging note for those of us who are studying to be editors, copy or otherwise.

I am printing this out to put on my cubicle wall. May I just add that the last line is particularly poignant.

I respectfully disagree, only in the slightest.

I think one of the most important traits for a good copy editor is a head for trivia. It's impossible to fact-check every single word that passes before our eyes, but knowing that the civil rights leader's first name was Medgar instead of Edgar -- which LOOKS right -- saves the paper from a thousand errors that no one notices unless they don't get caught.

You can hand anyone a copy of Garner, or Strunk and White, and say, "Learn the grammar rules." You can show them the formula for a news story, give them a checklist of questions to answer.

But you cannot teach them to be a human sponge for all manner of knowledge, from local institutional knowledge (sadly missing lately due to so many buyouts/layoffs) to general potpourri. Like mild OCD, only certain people are like that, and it is those people who are the truly successful copy editors.

Fifth through eighth grade?

Schools must be better now (or maybe my kids are smarter? Must be my kids, bcs we all know my kids are smarter than everybody else's, even everybody else's kids 40 years ago).

My daughter, in 4th grade, could copyedit as well as the people on my staff.

One thing I don't ever want to have to teach a copyeditor is that perhaps they should LOOK UP MEDGAR EVARS' NAME!!

That instinct that says, "wait, is this right?" "That sounds funny" or "oops, look up all proper names," is the one thing that is mysterious ina copyeditor. Some people don't have it--or refuse to have it.

And all good copyeditors do it.

Well put! This gave me insight on my own mental state during my dozen years on a copy desk. I'd call myself a "reformed" copy editor, but those obsessions never really go away.

I don't think it's OCD, it's more ADD (my neighbor across the street has OCD and I don't ever want to be associated with that but he is a hoot to watch when he's off his meds).

So maybe part of the problem is the anonymity of the copy editor in the newsroom. Get up off your chair and make yourself known. Elevate your status. Talk to the reporters about their stories, challenge the content editors. If something sounds stupid, do something to change it, don't just copy edit it, slap a head on it and move it along.
That's how I roll.

A random comment, not to correct so much as to add to your store of trivia: obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are two distinct entities. When people are referring to characteristics of perfectionism, orderliness, control, etc., they are referring to traits associated with the obsessive-compulsive personality. (For a correct example of this use, see John’s entry.) When these traits are expressed to a degree that substantially interferes with daily living, it becomes a personality disorder. OCD, on the other hand, is characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts or ideas (obsessions) that are then relieved by repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions). It is usually thought of as an anxiety disorder. Despite the similar names, the two disorders are in fact unrelated. People with OCD do not necessarily have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and vice versa.

While I can well believe that copy editors are distinguished as a group by a certain degree of perfectionism and orderliness, I have my doubts as to whether they suffer en masse from intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors. Then again, I don’t have a very extensive acquaintance with copy editors, so who am I to say?

Always grateful to learn a useful distinction. Many thanks.

Fortunately, I am not a doctor, so the task of cataloguing the personality disorders of journalists does not, laus Deo, fall to me. Neither am I qualified nor inclined to determine how many of them are clinical, though I harbor some suspicions.

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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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