If you’re afraid of looking like a noodge, don’t go into editing.
Brian White, responding to Friday’s post about the need for editors to insist on raising questions, asked:
How many times is enough to ask "Are we really sure?" I've run into things in the past that made me really uncomfortable, but my concerns were pooh-poohed. When do you let it go?
That is a reasonable question, and the answer depends upon a number of circumstances, all of which must be carefully weighed.
The editing environment: It’s hardly a secret that there are many publications at which copy editors are expected to run the spell-checker and keep their opinions to themselves. Some of these outlets are known as ”writers’ papers,” and they are notable for the risible excesses they publish.* Others are such a low-grade, assembly-line operation that an editor scarcely has time to catch a breath, much less raise a question. These outlets are known for their overwhelming slovenliness.
Either situation obviously constrains the possibilities. In either, the editor or copy editor must decide whether a point is significant enough to warrant the time and energy of pursuit. This is triage; some things must simply be let go.
The ground of battle: I like Jonathan Kozol’s advice: ”Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” Talk first with a colleague you trust to get confirmation that the point at issue merits further action. Marshal your arguments. If a point of fact is involved, make sure that you can document what is correct. If a matter of usage or taste or judgment is at issue, make sure that you can articulate an argument — something more substantial than personal preference. If it is a legal or ethical issue, be precise about how those principles come into play.
The chain of command: Publications have levels of responsibility and authority. At The Sun, copy editors are free to correct matters of fact, spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and house style without begging leave. Issues of focus, structure, organization, tone, and legal or ethical issues must be taken up with other editors. Those other editors constitute a hierarchy of appeal. You start with your immediate supervisor and proceed up the chain as the gravity of the situation dictates.
On the occasions that I take an issue into the editor’s office, I am seldom overruled. But I don’t take a case to the Supreme Court unless I am confident of being upheld; otherwise, I settle in the lower courts.
The best solution is to resolve issues at the most immediate level, with the writer or assigning editor. For this interaction, I offer the example of the late Les Hall.
Les (formally Leslie) was a copy editor at The Sun when I was hired. Sitting next to him on the desk, you’d hear him sigh over a story, light a cigarette (this before we became so damnably virtuous in the newsroom), and call the reporter. I can still hear his North Carolina lilt in my head: “This is Les Hall on the copy desk. I’m editin’ your story for tomorrow’s paper, and there’s just one or two little points I’m not quite clear on. I wonder if you could help me out.” As the conversation went on, it became apparent that Les was systematically dismantling and reconstructing the article, paragraph by paragraph, with the cooperation of the reporter, who just wanted to help ol’ Les clear up a couple of little points.
If you are balked at the initial level, you have an option to take the matter higher up on appeal. The higher you take it, the more substantial the issue has to be. But if you know that you are right, don’t allow yourself to be buffaloed.
Finally, if the point you raise involves the potential for libel, plagiarism or fabrication, go as high as you need to. There may be no more than one or two occasions in your career on which you call the managing editor or editor at home in the evening to sound such an alarm. But if the occasion warrants it, don’t hold back. The integrity of the publication may be in your hands.
*It’s about time we considered some writers’ prose excesses in detail, and I plan to perform such a necropsy in a future post.