Here's the secret password

Professor Doug Fisher, proprietor of the Common Sense Journalism blog, is concerned that we copy editors do ourselves a disservice by allowing a perception to persist that we are a mysterious black box with workings that no one else can understand. To many at newspapers, we’re a bread machine: Someone puts in the ingredients and pushes a button, and at the appointed time a loaf comes out.

What prompted Brother Fisher’s ruminations was a blog post by Lynn Bering, freelance journalist in Clarion, Pa., who wrote: “Copy editors know stuff writers don’t. It’s like a secret society with complicated rules and secret handshakes. I am too impatient to be a copy editor and I lack the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing.”

Let me pull back the curtain. Copy editing is not like deciphering Babylonian cuneiform or reconstructing the genetic code. Like everything else in journalism, if it were too difficult, journalists couldn’t do it.

Copy editing is editing. The copy editor looks at a text and asks really obvious and simple-minded questions: Is this accurate? Is this clear? Where does this information come from? (These are also the questions that good writers pose to themselves.)

Yes, copy editors also address the structure and organization of articles, but the arsenal of devices available to journalists is not extensive. One police story, one obituary, one profile is very much like all the others. Journalistic articles are basically a series of set forms that are easy to imitate. That is how they can be produced rapidly.

And copy editors concern themselves with grammar and usage. Once again, one does not need an advanced degree in linguistics to parse the sentences in newspaper articles. The grammar I learned from Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig in grades five through eight in public schools in Fleming County, Kentucky, in the1960s is surprisingly adequate for most purposes in newspaper editing.

The copy desk also has to code articles for typesetting. I hate to be tiresomely repetitive, but if newspaper pagination systems were really difficult to master, journalists couldn’t manage them.

The specialization in copy editing does not rise from arcane knowledge but from uncommon temperament.

The best copy editors are mildly obsessive-compulsive; they are driven to see that the details are right. Mildly obsessive-compulsive, because if they weren’t obsessive to a degree, they wouldn’t care; and because if they were too obsessive, they’d never be able finish editing a text.

Copy editors work anonymously. No one outside the newspaper knows who they are or what they do, and it’s not uncommon at some papers for senior managers to be unable to identify them by name. If you think that a 10-line news brief is incomplete without your name at the end, you probably have no business on the copy desk.

Copy editors work under pressure. Reporters kvetch about deadlines, but copy editors actually have to meet theirs. There is never enough time to do everything that ought to be done, much less what one would like to do, so copy editors, like emergency room personnel, are constantly calculating triage.

The flaw in the copy editor personality — the urgent issue to address — is the naïve but touching belief that doing a job conscientiously and well is all that is necessary to be appreciated by one’s employer.



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