Here's a straw in the wind. One of my correspondents reports that the Times Union in Albany, New York, has returned to a slot system of multiple reads of copy. Evidently two beliefs came a cropper: the first that reporters can be instantly transformed into copy editing themselves, the second that a quick swipe from an overburdened assistant editor is all an article needs to become publishable.
Let me explain something. The traditional copy editing process was not set up as a public-works program for unemployed English majors. Copy editors were engaged out of a recognition of bedrock truths about writing and editing.
The first of these is that writing and editing, though allied, are separate functions. Not everyone is equally good at each. In fact, reporting, writing, and editing are separate functions, without an even distribution of skills. There are people who can ferret out all manner of information but are helpless to organize it in lucid English. There are writers who intuitively produce vivid work but have not developed analytical skills. There are editors who can zero in on the weaknesses of a text without the ability to produce a memorable one themselves. People used to be assigned to perform the functions they were best qualified for.
The second bedrock truth is that writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work. Especially now that the pace has picked up in journalism and writers lack the time to put a text down for a while so they can come back to it, look at it with fresh eyes, and revise. I wrote a little piece about corrections in The Sun for the 175th anniversary edition of the Sun Magazine, and Anne Tallent, who edited it, plucked an element out of the body and made it the opening, a far stronger opening than the one I had written.* That's what a proper editor does.
We all know that the old copy desk is not coming back. But when the managers heed some putz** saying that copy editors just tweak hyphens and commas and obsess over inconsequential style rules, and that readers don't care anymore about errors, they put the copy editors out on the curb. They take the easy choice rather than the informed choice. They chatter about "feet on the street" rather than consider how to allocate scarce resources responsibly.
The thing we know about readers is that when they encounter dull, slack, unclear writing, they stop reading. Accuracy, clarity, and precision are achieved through editing.
It remains to consider how to produce verified, edited prose in the current environment.
Writers are going to have to take more responsibility for self-editing, because there are and will be fewer editors to protect them from themselves. But, as was discovered in Albany, just telling reporters to do this, like telling adolescents that they have to pick up after themselves, is not adequate to the purpose. Editing skills do not come naturally; they have to be learned.
That means writers will have to be taught editing skills, trained. Beyond that, they will have to be held responsible, accountable for their work. No more skipping the spell-check.*** No skipping the accuracy checklist. No more indulgence over repeated lapses in grammar and usage.Supervising editors will have to supervise.
That will help, but more will be needed. The editor who works with the writer and helps shape the article, being too closely involved in it, is not necessarily the person to gauge how the reader will react to it. The function of the copy editor was to supply the place to the reader, to identify what the reader would find heavy going. A one-step process, writer directly to reader, is risky. A two-step process, writer to editor to reader, is better, but inadequate. A three-step process, writer to editor to whatever term under which you are going to conceal the function that the copy editor used to perform, is better suited to the production of journalism that someone might actually want to read.
*Do I wish I had an editor for these blog posts? Of course I do. I'm not an idiot. Someone to spot my typos and errors before publication. Someone to tighten the slack writing. Someone to challenge the assumptions and identify neglected or omitted elements. Someone to tell me when the jokes aren't funny. Someone to spot miscalculations of tone. Anybody would benefit from that kind of attention, and I'm trying to do it all by myself, with mixed results.
**Lest you take offense at the vulgarism, let me explain that in identifying someone who is ignorant (that is, uninformed), stupid (uniformed and uninclined to become informed), and mendacious (willfully purveying misinformation), some strong term is required.
***You didn't know that there are professional journalists who don't spell-check their own work? I've encountered them by the score. And some who do run the spell-check insert Cupertinos.