Talking smack about editing

The Queen tells Alice, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." If the Queen were on the Internet, she could discover six asinine things before the coffee has begun to cool in the cup. I offer as a specimen the remarks on copy editing by one Abraham Hyatt, reported by Jim Romenesko:

"I strongly believe that online audiences don’t notice the majority of the work a copyeditor does. Readers see misspellings and blatant errors in grammar. But tense agreement? Using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent? Failing to hyphenate a compound modifier preceding a noun?"

Those are fighting words, and the estimable Fred Vultee has calmly and politely demonstrated why Mr. Hyatt's beliefs are the views of an ass.

Copy editors are familiar with the view that we are comma jockeys who obsess over trivia. I once reported to a managing editor who referred to copy editors as "a necessary evil." It's not hard to see how reporters and assigning editors would become defensive about the people whose job it is to identify the defects in their work. 

And, truth be told, I have known copy editors who busy themselves with inconsequential matters while neglecting major ones. Each trade has its hazards. 

But, in addition to the excellent points in Mr. Vultee's article, I would like to suggest a couple for Mr. Hyatt's consideration.

Item: It's true that people will apparently look at anything online--all those cat photos and even my Grammarnoir serial. Let's entertain the possibility, however, that properly edited copy* has an appeal for literate, educated readers with disposable income, the readers you would most like to have and the readers your advertisers would most like you to have. 

Item: It was a copy editor at The Sun who flagged the most egregious example of libel I have personally encountered, a couple of hours before it would have gone on the press. It may be, Mr. Hyatt, that you think that the occasional legal settlement as a cost of doing business would be cheaper than wages and benefts for copy editors, but that is a very delicate calculation.

Item: Copy editors on the desk at The Sun have also detected plagiarisms and prevented their publication. Again, Mr. Hyatt, since virtually no publication has escaped it, how keen are you to have to retract an article and apologize that you were so credulous and careless as to allow theft to slip through your hands?

Item: If your crowded schedule will permit it, Mr. Hyatt, you could fly to Las Vegas next month for the 18th national conference of the American Copy Editors Society to see for yourself the range of issues copy editors are competent to deal with and what the advantages might be of hiring smart people and allowing them to do their work.

It is regrettable that so many people in authority in journalism and online publishing remain pitifully ignorant of what editors actually do, but opportunities for education abound. 



*Not just the names spelled right or the syntax looking like that of a native speaker, but clear and concise, stripped of the time-wasting indulgences to which writers are prone. 





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