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Can't we all just get along? Again

A post at Testy Copy Editors complaining about the pretentiousness of a newspaper’s using volte-face instead of the perfectly serviceable English about-face, provoked this outburst from Chief Testyfier Phil Blanchard:

You know, I'm way tired of sensitive newspaper reporters whose badly written copy we make publishable. I've been hearing their whining for decades and it's only getting worse.

Rarely does a copy editor screw around significantly with the work of a good writer. Often, attempts to fix unpublishable copy fail, but that's hardly the copy desk's fault.

It's always the crappy writers who complain, and their insecure editors who back them. We shouldn't be trying to justify our work. We should just be doing it, and counting on our desk chiefs to cover our backs. We don't want or need thanks and praise. We just need to be left alone to do our work.

Good Christ, this isn't literature we're committing here. Even most Pulitizer-winning stories, products of great reporting, aren't particularly well-written. Readers are not impressed with failed flourishes. They are killing us.

Lord knows I’ve been there among the ballooning egos.*

I’ve also heard the complaints from the other side of the aisle.

Just recently, an article about a public spat between the governor of Maryland and the state comptroller came over to the desk with a sentence describing the exchange as an “irascible debate.” Someone on the copy desk, my copy desk, unilaterally. took out irascible.

This is the sort of little thing that drives reporters and assigning editors nuts. The exchange between the two was irritable and ill-tempered; the quoted material demonstrated it. So the word was not inappropriate. And certainly it should be permissible to characterize such exchanges. A debate can be, after all, civilized, low-key, heated, uneventful or any number of other things. Why a copy editor would delete an unobjectionable word, leaving the text flatter than it was originally, is inexplicable.

The straining for literary effect in journalism represents a failure of the writer to follow George Bernard Shaw’s advice: “In literature the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language: the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.”

It also tends to represent the assigning editor’s failure to recognize the overwrought, or, worse, the editor’s cowardly unwillingness to confront the writer over an ill-judged effect. When that occurs, it falls to the copy editor to do the dirty work.

Unfortunately, that responsibility also tends to tempt the copy editor to overreach, and make changes that accomplish no improvement — perhaps even change the text for the worse.

Perhaps we could all get along better if we practiced a little restraint on all sides.


* No, I haven’t forgotten my pledge to divert you with egregious excesses from my bulging files. Patience, patience. There are annual performance reviews to be written.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 PM | | Comments (14)


I've never had the privilege of working with a copy editor (and I saw that in all sincerity), but I have recently started reading many copy editor blogs and forums. Often, I find them enlightening.

At the same time, reading the forums has made me think that many copy editors have a strong distaste for those people out in the world who actually use language. They fall back on references books or some rule they've invented (or puzzled out on their own) instead of considering usage. I've seen some off the mark (and sometimes hilarious) pronouncements about foreign languages and food (these are the areas I know best myself).

P.S. On these forums, I've also noticed that copy editors seem to have an odd resistance to metaphors. The rejection of "over" for "more than" is the classic example, I suppose, but it seems to represent a general tendency.

Maybe the forum participants are representative of the average copy editor.

Ugh. I meant to write:

"Maybe the forum participants are NOT representative of the average copy editor."

Too bad we can't edit comments.

I'm sure ill-advised changes like that one are made often, but they are not what I was talking about, of course. That said, I might think of plenty of good reasons to get rid of something like that, regardless of whether it is true. I'd have to see the story. And a change like that usually would call for consultation with the writer or the assigning editor.

Call me crazy, but I feel myself siding with the copy editor here. Isn't "irascible" normally used in reference to people? The American Heritage Dictionary says: "1. Prone to outbursts of temper; easily angered. 2. Characterized by or resulting from anger. " OK, number 2 fits, but I don't think that's a very common usage.

"Just recently, an article about a public spat between the governor of Maryland and the state comptroller came over to the desk with a sentence describing the exchange as an “irascible debate.” Someone on the copy desk, my copy desk, unilaterally. took out irascible."

You are absolutely right -- that does drive reporters and assigning editors up the wall. It makes them want to break the fingers of officious copy readers or worse.

Why do they take it upon themselves to do such things? For the same reason that dogs lick their b----s -- because they can.

I would have left "irascible" in, and immediately changed "volte-face." I consider myself to have a pretty wide vocabulary -- in English, French and Italian -- and have never seen that phrase.

Not to sound arrogant, but I normally assume that if I have to look up a word or its usage, a large majority of our readers would have to as well. I allow that the newspaper can instruct as well as inform, and if the word's meaning is immediately clear from the context, then yay, you learned something in your paper today, at no extra charge. However, if it makes the reader stop, say "hmm," and have to go look it up before he can continue, then we as editors have done him a disservice.

I always try to remind myself, before I change a word the writer would consider "creative," that my job is to make the copy better, not necessarily conform to some style that was written on a stone tablet eons ago. We are, after all, in a fight to the death to capture eyeballs. I'll let a story be a little unorthodox if it works.

(Which is why, no offense to you Phil, I avoid the TCE forums.)

Denise wrote: "I'll let a story be a little unorthodox if it works."

That's often a big "if."

My concern is solely for the reader, who is easily distracted and confused.

It's not the reports I have a problem with. It's the photographers who think that every photo should be framed and placed on a museum wall. There is no negotiating with this type of photographer.
The fact is, their "perfect" picture — that can't be touched — will have bird crap on it in 48 hours.
The reader comes first. The continuity of the entire page comes first. As far as I'm concerned, they did their job and pushed a button — now they can leave and let me do mine.

There is a time and place for "fun with words." It is very much a judgement call. Everyone's judgement fails occasionally. We can all use a little slack from time to time. But neither should we get defensive when someone brings a probable gaff to our attention.

I'd certainly change "irascible", not least because I'm sure 90 per cent of readers would never use the word themselves and probably 50 per cent, at least, would not be certain how to pronounce it. It's just a show-off way of saying "bad-tempered".

This is why SAT verbal scores are so low ... she said irascibly before doing a volte-face and skittering away for cover.

OK: they "debated irascibly".

Great Holy Cheesecake!

As if "irascible" is not a permanent requirement for the Comptroller's post in the wake of Don Willie Don.

Many readers of newspapers are not impressed with "big words"
We pefer words we recognize in our everyday language.
If a reporter or feature writer uses words we have to stop and look up or think about, the writer has lost our attention.
Irascible, "chopped" the flow for me as a reader.

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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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