Things unseen

May 31, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday's post, "A future for copy editors," in which I expanded on some advice to the trade by Steve Buttry, has attracted several comments, but you probably don't know that. Because of defects in the blogware, the counter on the post registers zero comments. But some of them, particularly those by Picky and Brian Throckmorton, are quite astute and valuable, so I am republishing them here.


What kind of bar can you open on severance packages which amount to the total of your as-yet-unclaimed vacation days for the year?   You can't even buy a sandbar for that price.

Jonathon Owen

"Stop wasting time on things that don't matter much."

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The more time we spend fussing over insignificant things and non-errors, the more we trivialize our own jobs.

Ed Latham

I agree with everything said here and at Mr Buttry's post. Just to add a note of hope: 

At my paper, the same body-copy file is used for both the website and the newspaper, and is usually processed by the same sub for both. 

This means the sub, in addition to editing for sense, legality, grammar, style etc, also has to (i) cut material that is wanted for neither print or web altogether; (ii) 'soft-cut' parts of the article that need to appear in print but not web, or vice versa, accordingly; (iii) add clickable web links to previous relevant stories in the text; (iv) add a web picture and/or video; (v) write a Google-friendly set of web furniture (head, standfirst, caption, web trail, link text, URL slugwords) that is completely separate from the print furniture; (vi) write suitably clear/witty/engaging print furniture; (vii) clear everything with the search engine optimisation team, and, if necessary, the lawyer; (viii) launch the story on the web.

The point is: there's lots to do. Not just in terms of fewer staff doing more stories, but because each individual story in the web era actually needs more production attention, not less. [Emphasis added] For all the talk of cutting back, there's no way that writers and assigning editors can get through all that labour without losing focus on their primary jobs. Papers that cut too much will find themselves having to regrow a copy desk to cope.


Those of us who are still serious readers notice and lament the disappearance of careful copyediting. It seems also that editors and copyeditors could do much to advance the writing skills of novice journalists. I no longer feel I get the who, what, where and when in the first paragraph or two, and I lose track of the why in the absence of the other "w's." Make those newbies think critically about sequence; focus them on the connotations as well as denotations of the words; remind them that they were supposed to learn the difference between exposition and opinion before they left the fourth grade; get them to worship at the altar of textual clarity.

The Feb. 9, 2009 issue of the New Yorker included a piece by John McPhee about a legendary fact-checker. A parttical passage dealt with the implications of the comma placement for the meaning of the sentence. I just loved it. Comma-mongers ye may be, at least on occasion, but I am not sure that is such a bad thing.

I appreciate your thoughts!

Picky Picky

I was demobbed a long time ago, so of course I left the room when you requested it, but if you said in our absence what I suspect you said, that may have been the most valuable part of your advice.

Mr Buttry's article and your response seem full of good sense to me, but they and Mr Latham's comment just remind me of how many many years have passed since I was a sub (some of the copy from Addison and Steele just had to be seen to be believed!) and how vastly the whole business has changed. From now on subbing joins the list of those topics on which I am perfectly prepared to expatiate, but on which my expertise will be only pretended.

I cannot, however, imagine that if we as a society want and need journalism – professional journalism, I mean, not the crowd-sourced variety – we shall not also need copy editors.  It may take a few years before we realise how much we need them, but we'll discover it.  Meanwhile, as you say, you poor saps still in the trade need to give every sign that you have your wits about you. [Emphasis added]

Brian Throckmorton

I'll add this: (1) Don't assume you're safe just because you're a great copy editor. Great copy editors get laid off all the time. (2) Be prepared to blow your own horn. When you make a valuable catch or prevent an embarrassing error, make sure someone knows about it. Keep a file of such catches, and trot it out at evaluation time or any other appropriate moment. Weed the file so that it lists only the flagrant and humiliating mistakes. Don't include routine spelling snafus and stylebook arcana; do include errors that involve critical thinking, logic, math, or noticing what's not there.  [Emphasis added] Copy editing self-selects for introverts, but you must be ready to demonstrate why the paper would be embarrassed if you were no longer there. (3) Put more money into savings. You should have at least six months' worth of expenses in a rainy-day account. -- Brian Throckmorton, copy chief of the Lexington Herald-Leader until they decided newspapers don't need copy chiefs

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