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The misunderstood copy editor

Do not pity the copy editor. Pity instead the reporter who thinks the copy desk isn’t important.

A National Post opinion piece earlier this week heaped both pity and scorn on the “lowly copy editor,” the newsroom functionary whose job is never romanticized. Our value as a guardian against poor grammar and bad spelling is rendered even less so by readers in the Internet age, who don’t fret the niggling details of such trivia, he argues.

Who cares about dangling modifiers when there are Keyboard Cat videos to be seen?

To be fair, this IS adorable.

This rationalized laziness would be bad enough, even if it were true. Let me assure you that, based on letters to the editor and occasional clippings sent back to my paper’s newsroom with the occasional typo highlighted, readers still do care. They notice typos, misspellings and sentence fragments. Every one that they spot sends a subtle signal to the readers’ minds that the publication has gotten sloppy. Each time the reader spots a “typo here, a grammatical glitch there,” a newspaper — and website, for that matter — loses credibility. If we can’t get the small facts right, how can we be trusted to get the big facts right?

That leads to another important function of the copy desk, one that the National Post columnist (and, to be fair, most haters) failed to mention: Copy editors prevent libel.

Copy editors know the difference between a “shooting suspect” and an “accused shooter.”

Copy editors know when a statement needs no attribution (“It rained Monday”) and when it needs it (“the school’s sprinkler system is woefully inadequate”).

Copy editors know the difference between stating a fact and expressing an opinion.

Copy editors know that papers can, and have been, sued because a sloppy reporter left the “Jr.” out of a suspect’s name in a police log.

Copy editors know that even the best reporters, even the best line editors, miss red flags in stories that can lead to trouble.

Should writers know this? What about editors? Of course they should. But they don’t.

That’s why you have copy editors. We are the last line of defense. Without copy editors, newspapers would have to devote much more than just a corner of an inside page to list corrections. One of my favorite job descriptions comes from a posting on the American Copy Editors Society website, called “Why Editing Matters”:

“Copy editors are cheaper than lawyers.”

If those duties make copy editing sound like drudgery, let me finish by talking about the part of the copy editor’s job the most fun in the newsroom: the headlines.

Some of the best writing you’ll see in a newspaper comes in the form of a six- to eight-word phrase on top of a story you might not otherwise read. Almost no one remembers the details of what when a dead body was found in a strip club in 1983, but the New York Post headline lives on:

Headless body in topless bar

That one is so famous that it’s the nickname the Post used for the killer when he was up for parole earlier this year.

Variety famously summed up the Oct. 29, 1929 stock market crash in five words:

Wall St. Lays An Egg

And one of my favorites from the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2008 World Series championship: This came from the Philadelphia Daily News:

Send In The Crown!

Not every headline is a gem like the above. (To be fair, not every headline is written by a copy editor, but instead by a page designer or someone else in the newsroom who has a flash of brilliance.)

But every headline in the paper serves to bring the reader into the story, to make the daunting task of reading 10, 20, 30 inches of gray copy a little less intimidating. In talented hands, the headline succeeds. The craft of headline writing is not easily mastered, but when it works, it’s a thing of beauty. As one former, incredibly talented, colleague of mine used to say:

Copy editors write fewer words than reporters and are read by more people.

So maybe the National Post columnist is simply jealous.

Postscript: I am not a regular reader of the National Post; nor do I troll the Interwebs looking for examples of copy-editor-bashing. The offending piece caught my attention because I read the highly entertaining blog of John McIntyre, a veteran editor at the Baltimore Sun. I tried not to duplicate his arguments against the same post.

If you’re interested in editing, or language in general, you should make his blog a regular part of your reading day. I do.