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You Don't Say

My editor, my oppressor

The Baltimore Sun

You have heard of me. I operate the Dullatron. I drain the life from reporters' articles. I am a copy editor, determinedly extinguishing originality as I slap a coat of battleship gray over all that is fresh and imaginative. 

Or so I have heard, or overheard, during the past three decades. 

Now a reader sends me a link to "Against Editors," a Gawker article by Hamilton Nolan, in which one can find a familiar tone:

"It is also a farce. The grand traditional print media system—still seen today in top-tier magazines and newspapers—in which each writer's story is monkeyed with by a succession of ever more senior editors is, on the whole, a waste of time and resources. If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales. Writing is not a field in which quantity produces quality. Writing is more often an endeavor in which the passion and vision of one person produces a piece of work that must then be defended against an onslaught of competing visions of a series of editors who did not actually write or report the story—but who have some great ideas on how it should be changed."

When a writer starts to go on about the way that works of passion and vision and wit and imagination have been destroyed by ham-handed editors, I realize that I am listening to the hoofbeats of unicorns. 

It's not just that a great deal of the work of professional journalists is defective in the mechanics of spelling, grammar, and English usage, though it is; it is that an enormous amount of journalism displays blurred focus, defective organization, and misjudged prose effects. If you doubt me, you can come to the Editors' Association of Canada's international conference in June, at which my session on metaphor and ornamental writing will include examples of the creativity of professional journalists that you will, I guarantee, find both hilarious and sad. 

All the same, Mr. Nolan makes a number of valid points. 

He is spot on in pointing out that editing and writing are different skills, that good writers are not necessarily good editors, and that advancing writers into editorial positions for which they are untrained or temperamentally ill-suited makes for bad editing.*

He is also correct in his sardonic portrait of four editors taking on a text in succession, each one undoing the editing of the previous editor. That still goes on, and a good bit of copy has been reduced to stodge before it comes into my hands. Good editing and good editors are to be prized, the more so because they are so scarce. 

But I find it difficult to endorse his conclusion: 

"The 'new' online media, happily, tends to be less editor-heavy than the big legacy media outlets that have sprouted entire ecosystems of editors and sub-editors over the course of decades. This is partly because the stark economics of online journalism make clear just how wasteful all those extra editors are. To hire a new editor instead of a new writer is to give up actual stories in favor of... some marginal improvements, somewhere, or perhaps nothing at all."

I have written in the past about writers who appear to believe that if we just hanged all the editors, we would arrive at a literary efflorescence unmatched since the England of the first Elizabeth. 

Well, we're nearly all gone, and here is your flowering: listicles, the shallow gossip of Politico, the clickbait of Huffington Post and Upworthy, and the fawning obsession with minor celebrities that used to be the franchise of supermarket tabloids, punctuated with periodic exposures of plagiarisms and fabrications. 




*Though when he speaks of editing as the road to advancement, money, and prestige in journalism, those of us remaining on the copy desk exchange that bitter laugh for which we are renowned. 

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