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First day of class

Two weeks from today I will walk into a drab little room in Beatty Hall on the Loyola University Maryland campus to talk to a dozen or so undergraduates who have unaccountably registered to learn copy editing. It will be my thirty-second semester of teaching the course, and they will hear something like this:

This is not a gut course. Writing is difficult enough to do. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder. We can write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.

Before we even get to the analytical aspect, we will have to do some work on grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the five hundred students who have preceded you here, you will be shaky on some of the fundamentals. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught.

I should also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly dull. A student from last term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.

I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can.

Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I’m going to talk to you about basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I’m going to advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I’m going to show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.

Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class. I can’t make you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters?

But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by Christmas be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead of most of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. Last semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.

One more thing. You may not care for my manner or my sense of humor. Not every student has. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to practice your coping skills.

Now, shall we get down to the particulars?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:15 AM | | Comments (18)



I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to practice your coping skills.

I plan to snip "this semester" and then shamelessly steal this line for use with young staff here at work, my college age kids and any other whippersnappers who could use a dose of reality. It will be followed closely by my standard advice, "Life's not fair. Get over it." When necessary, I then follow that up with, "And get over yourself while you're at it."

Enjoy the whippersnapping editors in the rough, Mr. McIntyre!


Do you practice in front of the mirror before you give this speech? Or have you memorized it by now? : )

No need either to practice or memorize. I've been doing variations of it for sixteen years.

I wish you could come to Toronto to teach this class, and I'd bet that (unless the students are jackasses) it will be one of the best classes it will be their privilege ever to take.

Those students cannot know, sir, how truly fortunate they are to have you as a teacher.

"I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can."

Very curious whether or not anyone actually has?

Thank you.

I come to this blog for elements of your class, and to listen to my fellow jacks and jennets.

It almost makes me wish that I
Could live in Baltimore,
And be a kid of 21
And walk right through your door.

Alas I'm far from where you teach,
And farther still in age;
I guess I'll just content myself
And read your daily page...

If I wasn't in Ithaca, I'd be in this class. Boring and all.

I told my students that I'd already taken this course - it was now up to them to do the work.

Bravo, Mr. McIntyre.

I'm guessing that, during your brief about-face toward the blackboard (do they still use those?), there was a clatter of desks and scrabble of feet as the "skulls full of mush" fled toward the door.

The best part: the last, "jackass", paragraph. An expectation that the world will continue to conform to their every whim is the chief disability of today's youth. Congratulations on your willingness to begin the process of mitigating it.

John, I really enjoyed this. I'm sure I would have enjoyed your class in college, too. Found this piece through Doug Fisher's Common Sense Journalism blog:

I would love to audit this class too.

As for "I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world ...", I'm adding this to my mental list of things we should be taught in school anyway.

Looks like a great way to set up a first day. Also, on your RateMyProfessor page, one student says you remind him of Steve Martin. Do you play banjo in class?

The other commentors pretty well covered what I would say, but I will comment simply for the pleasure of adding my voice to theirs. I would have LOVED to take your class, four decades ago or any time since. You hit just the right note between high standards and low humor. I turn to your daily posts first these days, to start the day out right. Thanks!

Love it!

I adore bios written in third person!

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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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