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.