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So it has come to this

A colleague who is taking a graduate-level course has asked a number of us to respond to questions about the nature and future — if any — of copy editing.

The means of production

Copy editors have always been the hinge between writing/editing and the physical production of newspapers and books. The great change that occurred on copy desks during the last quarter of the 20th century was the elimination of printers in composing rooms and the transfer of formatting and typesetting production to copy desks. Mention CCI., SSI,. DTI, Harris or Unisys to a group of copy editors, and you can watch the blood drain from their faces.

The process has accelerated in this century, with production of electronic copy added to the production of print copy. The new inspiration is the editing of "platform-neutral" copy: text that can then be manipulated for print and electronic publication.

The effect has been that as staffing on copy desks has declined, more and more time has been taken up by formatting and coding for production purposes, with less and less time allowed for the editing. The struggle to maintain the standards of factual accuracy, grammatical precision, and clarity remains.

One side effect: Because writers, most editors and many managers remain determinedly ignorant of the details of production, lest they lose caste, the copy desk’s immersion in these details has not generated an improved reputation for copy editors.

The schooling of editors

It’s impressive that some journalism programs are investing in state-of-the-art equipment for the training of their majors, but they will probably find that keeping the equipment state-of-the-art is an expensive and losing battle. But it’s likely that the young will embrace new technology — Facebook, Twitter and whatever will succeed them — faster than their elders.

What continues to be lacking in journalism education is a thorough grounding in the use of the language. Many Journalism majors have the sketchiest grasp of English grammar and usage, and much of what they do think they know consists of superstitions and bad advice. (Imagine a medical student who had either no training in anatomy or, worse, Galen’s.)

They have also had very little training in the structural analysis of texts. I don’t mean what used to be called structuralism, but the ability to identify the focus in a text, to anatomize its structure, to examine how effectively the elements are organized in that structure, to comment with authority on metaphor and the use of other rhetorical devices.

The future of editing

So long as people have difficulty writing with precision and clarity, copy editing will be useful. Whether that usefulness will be recognized, however, is questionable. The “dead-tree media” — newspapers, magazines, books — are dismissing their copy editors at an alarming rate to cut costs. Electronic media have never invested all that heavily in editors to begin with. These developments have been accompanied by a great deal of asinine rationalization to the effect that writers don’t really require all that much editing.

So, you smart young people who want to get into the paragraph game, who show some ability and enthusiasm for the act of editing, there is an enormous need for your services. The potential inner satisfactions of taking low-grade prose and turning it into something clearer, more forceful, and more precise have never been greater. Unfortunately, you may not be able to land a job, and any job you land is unlikely to lead to prosperity. For you, going into editing will be like following a monastic vocation. God bless you, and don’t forget to write.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:06 PM | | Comments (5)


The fact is that nobody, with the exception of autodidacts like me and people who intend to become linguists specializing in English, is taught anything at all that is both correct and systematic about the grammar of English. Mark Liberman at Language Log sums it up well:

Historians aren't constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren't always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. Most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about [other subjects], but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.

I think maybe the downward spiral described here happened to technical writers even sooner -- I'm not sure of the current state of that art. Tech writers jobs differed from that of copy editors in that source material usually came from a techie whose self-image was NOT as a writer -- so it needed a different level of editing, or even total writing. The time frames were often more generous than newspaper deadlines, so there could be an arduous review cycle that a newsdesk couldn't dream of. But tech writers did many of the same tasks, and sometimes got lost in the technical side of their job (as online help systems began to replace paper manuals, for example). I wonder if an exploration of the parallels would provide insight into current events.

The answers are rooted in the cliche "value added." Is value to the product being added? This is what needs to be demonstrated internally within organizations and externally to customers (clients). If copy editors are merely seen as (or act as) fussy perfectionists who are delivering a Cadillac when the customer merely wants a Chevy, then, yes, they will run the risk of extinction -- just like the workers at G.M. for similar reasons. Tough stuff; tough times -- for all.

The trouble with using "non-value-added" as an argument for eliminating costly functions is that the people doing the arguing have a vested interest in the outcomes they are seeking: "We haven't seen a defective seal in the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters for over twenty years, so why continue testing?" "We haven't been sued for libel in a long time so why keep a fact-checking staff on payroll?"


I want to be an editor because I am a writer and I have a good grasp of the English language. I know how it works and I know how to use it. The idea that people are cutting editing jobs because they don't see any value in correcting the copy for mistakes but want the information out to the readership as fast as possible is horrendous to me. Equally horrendous is the fact that current style guides seem to be updating style rules to make this process of bypassing editing checks even easier. My example is that I was recently told - corrected, even - that you do not have to place periods behind each letter in an abbreviation of place names such as "W. A." for "Western Australia" and that there is no longer a need to write "Tuesday, the 19th of May 2009" but that it should be "Tuesday, 19 May 2009". I feel this is pandering more to people who can't or don't know how to write and making it easier to devalue the work that a copy editor would do.

As you say, the job numbers are dwindling and the number of errors I catch in newspaper articles and the like is astounding. I am only 26, this is what I can do and this is what I am passionate about. However I now feel I am qualified for a job or occupation that does not exist anymore. I don't know what to do about it.

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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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