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Clever and modest and misunderstood

Anyone who remembers fondly the Flanders and Swann songs of the 1950s and 1960s will recall that “clever and modest and misunderstood” are the terms Michael Flanders applies to the English in his mock national song.* From here, they look like just the words to sum up what copy editors are like.

The term David Sullivan adopted at his blog is “shy egomaniacs,” which has a similar feel to it. It was to give a voice within the newspaper and publishing businesses to these shy egomaniacs that the American Copy Editors Society was founded in 1997. Attached to Mr. Sullivan’s post are some strongly negative comments about ACES and copy editors — the most charitable explanation for which is ignorance rather than mere spleen — that I would like to rebut.

From the start, ACES has recognized and addressed educational needs. The society has for several years granted scholarships to students pursuing careers in editing, currently through an educational foundation. But the society has also addressed the need for further training within the ranks of the professionals. The national conferences offer in their three days of workshops concentrated training for editors. Those workshops are led by professionals who donate their time and expertise, out of recognition of the importance of the society’s work. The same is true for the regional conferences conducted under the society’s auspices.

Of course, the other goal, giving a voice to copy editors and their concerns, does not guarantee that that voice will be heeded. (Unless you want to blame Cassandra for the fall of Troy.) It should come as no shock that the princes, powers, thrones and dominions of American newspapering — the publishers and corporate executives — have largely ignored ACES and scanted the importance of editing. They are, after all, the same people who ignored the challenges of the Internet or addressed them maladroitly, who paid too little heed to demographics, who couldn’t figure out new advertising strategies as their business model began to cave in beneath them.

The sneers directed at particular members of the society are particularly uninformed and unworthy. It was my great good fortune to work with Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, the founders of ACES, and with Chris Wienandt, the current president. I know how smart they are, how dedicated to the craft, how many hundreds of unpaid hours they have devoted to the organization — as have many other members. I know how serious the members who attend the conferences are about improving their skills, the evidence of which has been plain in their enthusiastic and grateful comments.

Whatever happens in the newspaper/magazine/book/Internet publishing business, it is plain that the American Copy Editors Society has made a substantial contribution, and statements to the contrary are without foundation in fact.

On a larger issue, some of the unfavorable comments appear to blame copy editors for mistakes in print and the scandals that have buffeted the business.

On the first count, discovering errors in newspapers is a blind-pig-finds-acorn phenomenon. No daily newspaper, the production of which involves a large volume of prose created and edited by dozens of people on deadline, can be error-free. (It seems odd that the commenter appears not to understand this.) The measure of performance on a copy desk is how well the incidence of error is minimized — how many catches the desk makes. During a period of some months at The Sun during which I asked the copy editors to submit weekly samples of their catches, I was able to demonstrate to my masters that the copy desk was identifying and correcting scores of errors — scores — for every one that eluded them.

The same point counters the commenter’s apparent assertion that scandals have occurred because copy editors were too stupid or negligent to stop them. I know of cases of plagiarism, for example, that were identified and scotched on the copy desk at The Sun and never made it into print. The assumption that copy editors are not challenging suspect work is made without any evidentiary support. Now it is possible that copy desk challenges are overruled — as the concerns of a number of editors at The New York Times were disregarded as the Jayson Blair scandal unfolded. But newspapers are not, and should not be, run from the copy desk. It is the copy desk’s responsibility to raise questions and the responsibility of supervising editors to adjudicate.

It is a grim time in the business. Revenues are down and costs are up. Newspapers have had to make drastic cuts that no one liked. Copy desks are at particular risk because editing is expensive, and no one has been able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the money men that better quality — accuracy and clarity — increases profitability.

Even so, my colleagues at The Sun and other newspapers, their challenges rising and their ranks thinning, come in to work every day and sit down at the desk determined to root out error and increase clarity as comprehensively as circumstances will permit. ACES has spoken for them. ACES continues to speak for them.


* “Song of Patriotic Prejudice” I think that the YouTube clip must be from an American broadcast of their revue in 1967 or so. I subsequently bought and wore out all three of their LPs (Ask Grandfather what an LP was, children), which have be re-released on CD.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (5)


I'm not at all surprised that the negative comments you're rebutting here are from the same jerk you mentioned a couple of posts back as someone you've banned from these parts.

The guy is a troll who has been venting like this for nigh on a decade now, and he's best ignored. But in this case he served a useful purpose - allowing you to make some valid points about copy editor and ACES.

I am not part of ACES, but thanks for a spirited apologia pro vita tua.

Thanks for the video link - I was raised on Flanders and Swann (my mother used the chorus of "The Reluctant Cannibal" practically as a nursery rhyme) but I've never seen as opposed to heard them performing before.

I notice that in this version of "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice" (adapted as it is for an American audience) they leave out the cricket references in the original and replace them with an alternative verse. Homework question: was that a good editing decision?

Anyway, you've now more than ever proven yourself worthy of respect, as any American who has heard of Flanders and Swann is evidently a well-cultured individual.

Have some Madeira, m'dear!

Thanks for standing up for copy desks and ACES. Things are grim enough now that we need ACES more than ever; we're standing together.

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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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