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Editor, stat!

“You made copy-editing seem like such an important and elevated pursuit,” wrote Peter Sibley, a colleague at the Arizona Daily Star, regretting my absence from this year’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

Well, it is.

It is a service to the writer. Writers have in their heads what they mean to say, and it doesn’t always arrive intact in text. Competent editing draws out what is essential and clarifies it. Beyond that, all of us who write are fallible, prone to minor and embarrassing errors of fact, orthography, grammar, and usage, and all of us benefit when a practiced eye runs over the page. And there is finally this hard truth: We are not necessarily the best judges of the quality of our work. We need someone of sound judgment to advise us what works and what doesn’t.

It is a service to the reader. The reader, who is not present, is the party most likely to be overlooked in these operations, but without the reader there is no point in the writing. Editors are the reader’s vicar, there to give voice to the reader’s interests and preferences, which may well be at odds with the writer’s. If the writing is cloudy and opaque, then the reader will likely give up the chase for the information contained in it. If the approach does not meet the reader’s needs, then it doesn’t matter how elegant the prose; no one will proceed to the end of it.

It is a service to the publication. Some publications have forgotten this. Editing, to them, is a cost center, a frill, a layer or “touch” separating the reader from a direct encounter with the writer.* These days, the word editor appears in job descriptions about as often as scrivener. This is misguided. As you have already seen, the editor protects the writer from himself and works to ensure that the reader will keep reading the product. But wait—there’s more. Editing protects the publication from embarrassing errors of fact and English usage, which informed readers—the ones you most want—notice and scorn. Editing, when permitted, can protect the publication from plagiarism, fabrication, and libel, which are not only embarrassing but expensive.

Editors are quality folks. I know. I was present at the creation of ACES, and I have met and worked with editors by the hundreds. They are content to work anonymously, in the interest of clarity and precision, for their writers and publications. And, because recognition and reward are scanty in this enterprise, they take their reward in the satisfaction of doing good work. I can tell you this as well, from more than thirty years’ experience: The best writers, almost without exception, are the most appreciative of editing. You should be too.

 

*Do you really want that? Does the writer?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

An editors first role is to be stupid, to misunderstand whatever the slowest reader might misunderstand. The second role is to be smart, to clarify the prose so misunderstandings are eliminated. Stupid smart people are hard to find. As John has noted, the best editors recognize what a reporter is trying to say and help the reporter say it. The most discouraging question I ever got from editors was, "What are you trying to say?"

If the copy-editor is vaguely like a sub-editor, he is probably the first person to read the story who has no investment in it: who has not suggested or commissioned or written or backed or promoted it, or determined that it will be used. His first role, then, has nothing to do with how it is written. It is to say: How likely is it that this is true, is accurate, is fair, is complete?

Exactly.

Picky's made this point before, John. You talk in this blog, or so it seems to me, a great deal more about form than content, about fixing prose rather than fixing falsehoods. You might want to consider trueing up the balance a little. (Truing up? NID3, AHD4, and RHD2 list both; m-w.com doesn't even list the verb at all.)

+1 Patrick. One of my colleagues likes to exhort editors to "cultivate their naivete," by which he means not to fall for the writer's assurances that the reader will understand that thing, no problem, don't worry.

Mike, speaking of editors cultivating their naivete, the Des Moines Tribune, decades ago, had a brilliant tall copy editor who had a clean mind. There was a standing rule that someone should always scan copy behind her, because there was no double entendre that she was likely to catch. How someone with a clean mind got into journalism was never known.

One aspect of journalism that makes copy editors more important today than decades ago, is that today reporters' immediate editors so often work with them on stories, especially projects. The result is that the editor never reads the stories cold. Only the copy editor does that.

A good editor will make any writer better, not only by asking questions the writer didn't (or didn't ask hard enough), but by making those improvements seem positive and collaborative.

On the other hand, there is no worse betrayal for a writer than to have errors (of fact or usage) inserted into copy via poor editing. And writers, being all too human, are more likely to remember a single betrayal than a dozen rescues.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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