Thursday, April 14, 2005

Waging war against the copy desk

A freelance reporter, Patrick Lackey, wrote in to Romenesko last week looking for reporters' horror stories about copy editors. He ended the request with "Admittedly, editors are necessary evils and occasionally forces for good."

In another post, he made it even worse. He told the story of spelling the publisher's name wrong after his death. A copy editor caught the error, saving his career, he says. And so he wrote a poem.

His stubby pencil
was the lone lance
protecting legions of readers
from a phalanx
of reporters' errors.
But he was no hero.
Inside his cold heart
was a hard spot.
I'll guess that the examples he's looking for are going straight to him. But complaints about his attitude are being directed to Romenesko.

Inky copy editor Wendy Contos wrote: "Undoubtedly there are editing horror stories. However, as many copy editors out there can attest, we are the last attentive eyes before something hits the presses. Where I work, reporters have thanked me for my help and said, 'I love the copy desk.'"

Paul Wood, at the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., walks the middle ground: "There are certainly times an alert editor saves a reporter's ass. And the job is truly undervalued, which is why I left it for the much more ego-satisfying job of having my name in print. Nevertheless, there are copy editors who, chafing at their jobs, don't feel like they are working on the same team with their writers, and make changes that hurt stories."

Dan Meisler of the Livingston County (Mich.) Daily Press & Argus wrote: "In my experience (mostly as a reporter, with a stint as editor) most of the tension in reporter/copy editor relationships comes from ego-heavy reporters who regard their copy as sacred. The ability to remove oneself from one's own copy is rarely found."

And the best response came from John McIntyre, president of ACES and bigwig at the Baltimore Sun:
Some years back, a colleague came to my office to warn me that one of our assigning editors was compiling an anthology of "the sins of the copy desk" and inviting other editors to contribute. What, he asked, was I going to do about it?

Nothing, I said. They can't complain about changes we make in editing without also showing what they sent us, and much of that can't stand up to examination.

And indeed, nothing ever came of this campaign.

So if Patrick Lackey wants to collect dumb changes made by copy editors, he can find them. There are copy editors whose rigid adherence to real or imagined rules leads them to bad choices. There are copy editors who make changes without checking. And all copy editors, compelled to make scores of decisions in a limited time, make mistakes.

But if Mr. Lackey wants to make war on copy editors, he had better be armored. Copy desks have a vast supply, renewed daily, of howlers committed by writers. Cheap shots are easy from both sides of the aisle.

But it seems to me that a more profitable expenditure of time and energy would go into discovering ways to acknowledge our common fallibility and to explore possibilities of collaborating more effectively as colleagues.
Are there copy-editing horror stories out there? Sure. I've made my share of embarrassing mistakes, too.

I don't take issue so much with Lackey's asking for the stories. While reporters cringe, copy editors can learn a thing or two from them. (First, do no harm!)

But Lackey's attitude could use an adjustment.


At 3:20 PM, April 14, 2005, Blogger Mike said...

I've always wondered if the age-old acrimony between writers and editors doesn't mask a secret affection.

At 7:15 PM, April 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bigwig at The Sun?

Shucks, ma'am, I'm just a simple country boy.

John McIntyre

At 4:01 AM, April 17, 2005, Blogger Paul said...

Wonder no more Mike. You are correct.


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