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.