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Taking responsibility

I commend to your attention an excellent article by David Sullivan at the American Copy Editors society’s website, in which he addresses concerns about copy editing raised in an article by The Washington Post’s ombudsman.

The ombudsman observes, as does anyone who deals with readers, that there is irritation over errors of fact, eroding the publication’s credibility, and Patrick Pexton, the current ombudsman, lays the blame on the copy desk, where the blame is always laid.

Here’s the thing: As newspapers have increased the volume of content—print and electronic—they have decimated their copy desks. I’m not talking about the classical reduction by a tenth, but rather reduction to a tenth. The People in Charge think this is all right. The customers will just have to get used to a few more insect parts per million in the produce.

Since you are likelier to win the Powerball jackpot than see newspapers beef up the copy desk, concern about accuracy will have to be directed toward an unlikely target: the writers.

Don’t take umbrage, at least not immediately. I’ve worked with many writers who are scrupulous and precise, and when their copy comes across the desk I understand that I should mainly keep my hands off the keyboard.

But the culture that has prevailed in the business for a long time is that, like adolescents who leave their clothes strewn on the floor, the writers have expected that someone will be there to pick up after them.

I see that still today, when I open up stories whose web headlines, written by the reporter and already posted on the site, contain misspellings and errors in grammar. I see it when I ask about an article that contains two sets of numbers that appear to be contradictory, and the reporter’s response is that one set was just “picked up from the clips,” without noticing the discrepancy or making any effort to address it.

The writers, if newspapers are to shore up their eroded credibility, are going to have to take on a level of responsibility to which they are not accustomed. They will have to make sure that the names are spelled correctly and the numbers add up. They are going to have to be responsible for grammar and usage. They are going to have to spell-check their own work. They are going to have to learn how to write intelligible headlines for the web.

If they do that, the remaining copy desk staff, instead of having to fix everything, will be able to focus on the handful of minor slips that inevitably get past even the most careful writer.

All might do well to heed a couple of pieces of advice from fev at HeadsUp:

“1) Time that goes into enforcing every bogus secret-handshake rule in the AP Stylebook is not well spent.

“2) Time spent on taking a deep breath and giving the cop-blotter items a quick read for clarity and common sense before hitting the 'publish' button, on the other hand, is rewarded. The people on the receiving end of our prose appreciate it.” 



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (8)


"Responsibility" might have to be further defined for readers who have not ever been required to take it.

Did you learn 'hat' at school, or is it just something you picked up on the job?

(Oh, I see what you did there. Being the writer in this instance, you're demonstrating that even the most fastidious writer needs another set of eyes to look over their work.)

In "the good old days" big city papers had rewrite men; toay the definition of copy editor includes that term. Like you, I've processed copy that was impeccable, and copy that made me want to tear my heart out of my chest. Getting writers to the high standards you refer to in your post is a wonderful dream.

THANK YOU for using this phrase correctly: "a couple of pieces of"! I keep seeing/hearing "a couple pieces of".

It stands to reason that writers have to do more, because copyeditors have to do more. I see too many ads that want copyeditors to write the copy as well or lay it out or make it search engine friendly or something else that isn't in the usual job description for copyediting. He Who Writes the Checks doesn't have as much money to spend (read: doesn't want to take a pay cut himself so he passes it down), so we all have to wear more than one hat--and get paid less as a reward. It's not right, but unless you're a freelancer who can walk away from unsavory projects, I don't know how you stop it.

Erin makes a good point, too. I once worked at a company that laid off its editorial staff (all three of us). Within a few months they posted a job listing for a part-time "editor/business analyst" at a lower hourly rate.

As the squeeze is put on editors, it's important for us to be able to justify what we do. If our employer only sees us fussing over commas and hyphens and other style and usage trivia, they may not see the need for us anymore. But if they see that we catch errors and make the finished text a more appealing product, then we might be able to justify our continued existence.

I take it as a good sign that people still complain. It means that people still recognize mistakes to proper usage. The time to start worrying is when all goes quiet.

Well said. Many years ago, as a starting reporter at a small newspaper -- where the workload was nearly as high as today -- I learned early on that I would have to take care of spelling names right and writing complete, correct sentences, or risk errors being overlooked by the small, inexperienced, overwhelmed copy desk. But after all, why would any writer not turn in clean copy, not matter what the size of the desk?

Copy editors are not mommies or housemaids. Editors do not exist to make bad writers good, but to make good writers great.

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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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