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Give me back my legions!

In A.D. 9, the Roman General Publius Quinctilius Varus marched the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions, about 20,000 men, into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. The Germans annihilated them and captured their eagles, their sacred standards. The Roman Empire abandoned its ambitions to push the frontier across the Rhine to the Elbe, and, Suetonius tells us, thereafter the Emperor Augustus would pound his head against the wall and shout, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” *

It has sunk in this year, as newspapers have shed newsroom staff members, including copy editors, by the score, that those troops are never coming back. The Sun, for one, has about half the copy editors that were on staff seven years ago. Newspapers may tick along for a while yet, but neither print journalism nor electronic journalism looks likely to mobilize anything like the squadrons we used to have. Banging our heads against the wall and moaning “Give us back our legions!” will get us nowhere.

It remains to consider what things copy editors and their colleagues might be able to do.

Show your work

So long as copy editors repair error silently, no one will heed them. If, as is often the case, even some of the reporters and assigning editors who work most closely with them have only a dim idea of what a copy editor does, it is hardly likely that the people in the offices will have a better grasp. Don’t keep to yourselves. Maintain a record of errors identified and corrected on the desk, and make the bosses aware of what is being caught. If a reporter makes errors persistently and the assigning editor lets them through, or if you identify structural weaknesses in articles, go across the aisle and have a tactful conversation. Don’t make yourself invisible. **

Many of the people who control the budget in both print and online journalism appear to have decided that editing is a frill. They should be confronted with evidence to the contrary.

Work on what matters

Copy editors have a reputation, not always undeserved, for obsessing over minutiae. There are points of grammar and usage that demand attention, but many copy editors waste time on shibboleths and superstitions and silly dicta. There’s no longer time for that. (If you want information on which points of grammar and usage are important and which are not, reading back numbers of You Don’t Say is an excellent starting point.)

Make yourself useful

It’s not a good time to be ignorant of the Web. If your publication is using more video, maybe you should step forward and learn to edit video. Maybe there is a subject on which you could blog for your publication. Can you take competent photographs? Can you get involved with the Web site? Are you at least reading the blogs and electronic articles, and pointing out errors for correction? Do you suggest story ideas? As new tasks and new skills come into the workplace, that is an opportunity for you to learn them and make yourself less dispensable. When the editor comes out of his office and surveys the room with that furrowed brow, you do not want his gaze to light on you.

Don’t let writers evade responsibility While textbooks will solemnly assure you that it is the writer’s responsibility to verify every point of fact in an article before letting go of it, you know that the culture of journalism permits people to turn in all manner of shoddy work, because it is understood that there will be someone else to clean it all up — in some cases, that it is beneath the dignity of The Writer to busy himself or herself with petty details better left to underlings.

We no longer have that full Edwardian household staff to tidy up after the quality, and it is time that the writers were given to understand that they have to take more responsibility for their own work. (This, of course, requires a cultural change that must be enforced from the top, not from the remnants of the copy desk. Don’t look for it to happen soon, but push.)

Write about what people want to read

Probably not as easy as you think. The impulse to go over to celebrity chatter and fluff is probably a mistake — plenty of that stuff is available elsewhere, and, frankly, the people who do it are likely to do it better than newspaper people can. Besides, as we see when some event of importance occurs, people want information, and they want it to be reliable and comprehensive.

I’m probably on firmer ground by suggesting what I think people don’t much want to read:

* Boilerplate wire service stories — you know, the ones that tell you that 15 people were blown up in South Stanistan without giving any clear idea of who or what is involved. Better to make it a brief and run a longer story on South Stanistan when you have the space to give the reader a fuller picture.

* Transcriptions of press releases.

* Stories on bureaucratic proceedings that read as if a bureaucrat had written them.

* Stories that go on for a dozen paragraphs of anecdotal introduction before telling you what they are about. Any story that doesn’t tell you what it’s about within the first two or three paragraphs.

* Thinly reported features in which the lack of substance is supposedly compensated for by the reporter’s fancy writing. Or any story that draws more attention to the writer’s writing than to its subject.

You may not be in a position to shape these stories, and you may not have time to challenge them when they roll down the chute at you, but you can still raise the issue. You can go back to the issue the next day. You can initiate conversations in your own shop beyond the copy desk. (Try not to make an ass of yourself.)

Don’t give up the ship

Yes, I know that Capt. James Lawrence was mortally wounded when he gave the order and that the USS Chesapeake was taken by the British anyhow. No matter. That is the spirit.

Copy editors in particular are fighting a rear-guard action as newspapers struggle to find the means to survive. Our numbers are diminished, our masters’ confidence in the maintenance of quality has been shaken, and it is increasingly difficult to establish and maintain standards of editing instead of reverting to merely formatting and processing copy.

But you didn’t become a copy editor for riches or fame. You came to the desk determined to see things made right, knowing that there are readers who, without ever knowing your name, will appreciate being able to read articles that are accurate, straightforward and clear. You owe it to them not to give up. You owe it to yourself not to give up.

* “Quinctili Vare, legiones redde!”

** Yes, this is advice I’ve given before. Did you follow it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:12 AM | | Comments (8)


* Stories that go on for a dozen paragraphs of anecdotal introduction before telling you what they are about. Any story that doesn’t tell you what it’s about within the first two or three paragraphs.

Really? People read even 2 or 3 paragrpahs of cute-cute? I don't think so. Just get to the damned facts, please. Only your mother wants to read your cleverness and I'm lying about that.

[JEM: Just to be clear: I prefer to post comments that come with a name and an e-mail address, rather than anonymous ones. This one is on the edge of acceptability.]

John, one problem is that some of the things you suggest--editing blogs, taking photos, etc.--take time, and at most newspapers, copy editors are already quite busy and likely to become more so as papers cut staff.

Excellent advice, every point, and by no means limited to the newspaper game. We in high-tech likewise are moving from the position that editing is self-evidently valuable to a "justify the business reason" model.

And as you say, so much of what we do is not visible to those that hold the purse strings. My theory is that we don't want to argue with the bosses to keep us; we want our _writers_ to argue with the bosses to keep us. The more we help them do what they do, and the more they understand this, the better.

Your description of the duty of the copy editor in making errors vanish before they happen reminds me of my role as a nurse in being the last line of defense before the medication error reaches the patient. No one's counting the bad things that didn't happen. Mike's remark about the tendency to "justify the business reason" is all too familiar and makes me shudder.

'legiones', surely?


I've moved into a position where I'm being encouraged to blog, write and learn video editing. I don't feel safe, but I'm trying to make myself more valuable, and I'm fortunate to have supportive immediate supervisors. Thanks for the encouragement.


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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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