The false precision of fetish editing

The Baltimore Sun

During my first five years at The Sun the paper prided itself on formal discourse. We routinely applied courtesy titles—Mr., Miss, Mrs., Ms., military ranks, ecclesiastical titles—on second and subsequent reference to the people mentioned in our articles.

There were, of course, exceptions: historical figures (no “Mr. Caesar”) and criminals. And the exceptions provided fodder for endless discussion. When did the deceased become historical? (My rule of thumb: once the flesh had fallen from the bones.) And the criminals. Felons only, or those guilty of misdemeanors? When did the miscreant get his Mister back? Upon release from prison? Upon completion of the post-prison probationary period?

One of my predecessors as head of the copy desk disparaged “silly, pointless, hair-splitting debates.” But copy editors in my day lived for silly, pointless, hair-splitting debates, battened on them. There were lulls in those days that permitted discussion.

Getting the titles correct did not prevent us, though, on one occasion from transposing the name of the victim and the perpetrator. And there is the problem when copy editors fetishize minor details; the big errors can be overlooked.

One persistent preoccupation among my colleagues at The Sun has been the middle-initial fetish. Like most points of style, it had a purpose before being run into the ground; we wanted to make sure that we would not confuse John A. Smith with John H. Smith in copy. But when I get a page proof back on which the copy editor has indicated that we should change “Sen. Barbara Mikulski” to “Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski,” I wonder what reader in Maryland over the past three decades would have needed that middle initial to be sure which Sen. Barbara Mikulski we were writing about.

The Associated Press Stylebook announced at the ACES conference last month that it is lowercasing internet in the 2016 edition, the change becoming effective on June 1, when the print edition is formally published. I wonder how many AP formalists on copy desk will be capitalizing internet until 11:59 p.m. on May 31. No—wait! Anything capitalized then will appear in the print editions on June 1. So we’ll have to capitalize it for the May 31 print edition. No—hold on. We’ll also have to lowercase it in the advance sections that week that will come out on or after June 1 …

I told The Sun’s copy editors when I got back from ACES that they could drop the capital I immediately.

Fussy obsession with trivial details is the stereotype with which copy editors have been burdened, and we have often saddled ourselves with that stereotype in the false precision of our fetish editing. I see that in some of the nervous questions put to the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, many of which could be resolved with a little common sense rather than anxiety about what The Rules demand in every imaginable circumstance.

This is, no doubt, among the reasons that the sharp-pencil people have been deciding that publications can do away with copy editors, because why pay wages and benefits to people doing work that does not matter?

Accuracy matters. Accuracy is in the details. And one skill of professional editing is the ability to distinguish significant details from the ones that don’t matter much.

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