A touch of attitude

August 09, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

A commenter remarked once that I seem to be a little severe on writers. Full marks for perceptiveness. 

Let me tell you what it was like for copy editors in the medieval mists of a quarter-century and more ago. Copy editors worked mainly at night, when the important people had gone home. They worked weekends and holidays. The good that they did in correcting errors was invisible; merciful Lord help them if they inserted an error. And they were objects of scorn. 

Reporters would casually say that copy editors took a text and "ran it through the dull machine." One retiring senior journalist spoke of the time when his job was to file whatever he had to say, as long as he took to say it, and the paper's job was to get it all in print without interference from the copy desk. The Sun had a managing editor who routinely referred to the copy desk as "a necessary evil." One of our star reporters once called me a liar to my face in front of the newsroom, without any consequences. 

I'm Scotch-Irish, and you can expect a grudge to be held while there is still a pulse. So yes, I get a little sharp about writers and their pretensions. 

Not all of them. I used to have occasion to edit the copy of Jules Witcover and Jack Germond, and they were pros. Their copy came in clean in the first place; and when they called in with updates, they knew exactly what they wanted to say and exactly where in the text it could be smoothly inserted. I used to edit Diana Sugg's copy, some of which won a Pulitzer prize, and she was unfailingly cooperative and collegial. Not invariably, but frequently enough to support a generalization, the best writers were also most cooperative with the copy editors. The ones who had difficulty with the copy desk tended to be the ones most in need of editing. 

Then there came a brief shining moment when newspapers were fat and sassy enough to think, well, they could even afford to give copy editors a little respect. This coincided with the foundation of the American Copy Editors Society in 1997. (At the Louisville ACES conference in 2002, Merv Aubespin, who had been instrumental in the founding of the society, said that though he had never worked as a copy editor himself, he had a great concern for copy editors "because of my sympathy for oppressed peoples everywhere.") That was a time when major newspapers named assistant managing editors for their copy desks, to coordinate and strengthen the desks' efforts. 

Pretty much all gone now. Nearly all the A.M.E.s and most of the copy editors. (So are most of the prima donnas, actually.) Now the humblest reporters have achieved the status once reserved for stars: to have their copy published unedited. 

The writers who disparaged the copy desk used to talk as if the desk was the only obstacle to an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the England of the first Elizabeth. I have a question: Where's all the spun gold?

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