Why they hate us

If copy editors had an anthem, it would probably be this one:

Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
Guess I'll go eat worms.

If we had a motto, it would likely be a remark that Harold Ross, the legendary New Yorker editor, was given to utter at intervals: “God, how I pity me.”

Cue the violins.

What did we expect? Everyone knows that when a copy editor approaches, it's not to deliver good news. We're paid to find errors, and no one much cares to see his or her errors identified.

But if we were to take as hard a look at our own errors as at those of others, we could easily find material for reflection.

There is the copy editor personality, the tendency to reduce the world to binary 1's and 0's, the right and the wrong. It is this tendency that transforms the stylebook from a set of guidelines to a rulebook to be enforced inflexibly. Bill Walsh at Blogslot, http://theslot.blogspot.com/, identified this syndrome long ago by pointing out that when the AP Stylebook says to use a hyphen in a half-mile, it doesn't mean that half a mile has to be converted to a half-mile, but just that you use a hyphen in the latter construction.

The 1/0, right/wrong, good/evil, us/them point of view is often associated with a lack of perspective, an inability to distinguish what is important from what is trivial. Previous posts here, on such subjects as the time wasted on meaningless distinctions between lawyer and attorney, over and more than, are illustrative. Articles go into print without a clear focus, recognizable structure, support for assertions or identifiable audience of human beings; but, by gosh, by gee, by gum, over has been changed to more than.

What this all points to is a failure of judgment. Some distinctions of usage are important. Diction and metaphor are important. Structure and focus are important. But addressing the issues effectively demands good sense, and we on the copy desk do not always exercise it.

This gets noticed, and not just in the ranting at Language Log. Example:


A more sophisticated, more polished attack comes from Jacques Barzun in "Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity," in which he describes how writers are subjected to "the endless queries, suggestions, and alterations that some unnamed hand has sprinkled over their work."

He concedes the need for copy editors. "The spread of specialized knowledge, coupled with that of half-education, has created a new class of authors—people who knew things of value but wrote badly. For the sake of their information, the publisher in effect appointed a semi-ghost to assist the inarticulate and illiterate."

But everyone, incompetent and capable, falls under the sway of copy editors who make unnecessary changes and insert errors, merely to satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences. The result is "ever toward flattening out, standardizing—through pedantry, the literal mind, the love of the usual, which are forms of vulgarity."

To look at the examples of his own work changed for the worse by a copy editor is to feel the force of his argument. The insensitivity to nuance and prose rhythm is appalling. 

The central element and requirement of editing is judgment. Judgment involves not only knowing what is correct and what is incorrect, but also what does not matter. It involves recognition that when something is good, the editor ought to take his hands off the keyboard. It involves rigorous attention to "the inarticulate and the illiterate," who make up a great multitude of writers, and respect for the adept writer, a rare creature. It involves understanding that one size does not fit all.

"Behind the Blue Pencil" originally appeared in the Summer 1985 number of The American Scholar and was reprinted in On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, University of Chicago Press, 1986.   

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