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You Don't Say

Mirandizing the undergraduates

The Baltimore Sun

Today begins my twentieth year teaching copy editing at Loyola University Maryland (and, coincidentally, my twenty-eighth at The Baltimore Sun). This post, the latest iteration of my first-day-of-class cautions, is what the students in CM 361: Copy Editing, heard this morning.

It is only right, honorable, and just for me to let you know what you are in for. This is not a gut course. This is not an easy “A.” Some will take home a “C” at semester’s end and consider yourselves lucky to have it.  Here is what one of your predecessors wrote at

“He is a horrible teacher. DO NOT TAKE HIM! The course is interesting but this guy is a stiff who thinks he knows it all. You will leave this class so confused and end up with a grade that definitely deserves to be better than what you actually get. Don't get me wrong, he's a funny guy but not worth it.”

Writing is difficult. Speech comes to us naturally in childhood, but we have to spend years learning how to write fluently and effectively. Most people never get good at it. Editing is even harder than writing. We may be able to write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically. You can write drunk, but you have to be stone cold sober to edit.

Before we can even think about the analytical aspect, we will have to attend to some of the basics of grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the more than six hundred students who have preceded you in my charge, you are shaky on the fundamentals. This is not your fault. You were either not taught, or you were badly taught. Now you will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught. You will have to catch up to be an effective editor, and you do not have much time to accomplish that. I realize that you lead busy lives, keeping up with all those Kardashians, but you are going to have to put in the time here.

I must also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly, unrelievedly dull. A student from a previous term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” Exactly. So will you. Editing is done word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you scream.

 I’m going to turn my back for one minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can escape.

 Now, for those of you who are staying — and are willing to work — I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty-four years, twenty-seven of them at The Baltimore Sun. I have trained editors who are now working at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. I can explain basics of grammar so that you can shore up spots where you are shaky. I can advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I can show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

 You are about to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of inexpert prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better — more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective. That is what editors do.

 Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.

 I can’t turn you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters? But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by semester’s end be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead, parsecs ahead, of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

 Put in the time. My function here is to help you —  I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. One previous semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.

One more thing. My manner and sense of humor may not be to your taste. That is not a course requirement. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can profit from this semester is sharpening your coping skills.

Shall we get down to the particulars?

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