A future for copy editors

Last week Steve Buttry posted an article at The Buttry Diary on the ways in which copy editing, if it is to survive, must change from copy editors' accustomed attitudes and practices. I urge you to read it; no, I implore you to read it. Mr. Buttry, though an apostle of the new digital-first era, understands and appreciates the value of copy editing, and his article is thoughtful and intelligent.

There are a few points I would like to amplify.


DROP THE NONESSENTIALS: "You need to assess a story's needs quickly and address them efficiently," he writes. Well, with fewer people doing two or three times the work, you may have already twigged to this. Speeding it up means, above all, that you have to identify the most urgent issues and let go of the minor ones. Let me remind you that it is possible for an article to be perfectly grammatical and conform to every last guideline in the AP Stylebook and still be dull, unclear, superficial, plagiarized, fabricated, or libelous.

I know an editor who is still manipulating copy so that "$1.5" does not fall at the end of one line and "million" at the beginning of the next. Is there a reader in the known world who is going to be confused by that? I know of editors who are still fretting over the imagined distinction between over and more than. I know middle-initial fetishists. I see evidence of a cultish obsession with AP Style. Really, you will have to be exacting for academic or technical purposes, but if you are writing for a general audience, allowing "December 7, 1941" instead of "Dec. 7, 1941" is not going to produce gasps of dismay.


Stop wasting time on things that don't matter much.

WRITE STRAIGHTFORWARD HEADLINES: On the printed page, you have elements, such as secondary headlines, photos, display quotes, and the like, to give a clever headline context. On the web, you are better off writing straightforward, informative headlines of six to eight words, because that is likely to be all that will show up on searches.

It would be wholesome to moderate enthusiasm for plays on words in print headlines as well. I'm as guilty as anyone. I once suggested "With roux my heart is laden" for a cookery headline, and once in Cincinnati, for an article about a residential neighborhood in Detroit that was troubled by a stench from a defective sewage treatment plant, I wrote, and the paper published, "Every little breeze seems to whisper feces."*

But unfortunately, most copy editor headline wordplay degenerates into lamentably obvious punning. You can see that in headlines that win competitions. (My mentor, Andy Faith, asked to judge a statewide headline contest some years back, returned the entries with a note, "There are no winners.") Resist the temptation, or at least don't use the first pun that comes to mind.

A WORD TO THE CHOIR: If the civilians will step outside for a few moments, I need to talk to my colleagues on copy desks. You can come back in a few minutes. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

We don't generate copy; we have to wait for it to be provided to us. And that can contribute to a dangerous passivity, a reluctance to take initiative.

It should be obvious, as we watch our fellow copy editors by the dozen and the score forced to walk the plank, that simply doing our jobs and doing them well will not protect us. We have sat scornfully watching reporters suck up to the bosses for years, and the consequence of keeping to ourselves is that the bosses do not understand what we do and why it is important. Beyond that, to the degree that we have indulged in obsessive concern with details of minute importance, we have reinforced the cliche that we are mere comma-mongers and ripe candidates for separation packages.

If we are not editing efficiently and aggressively, and demonstrating our effectiveness to higher-ups, then we are simply lining up to be processed down the chute.

GET TRAINED: Everybody back? Good. If there is one thing you can count on, it is that your employer will not train you to do the work you need to do. The company will buy some new editing/production system, and you will get a couple of hours to watch someone blaze through projected functions on a screen. Or you will be steered to some online tutorial that assume you already know how to operate the software.

As for other skills, keep in mind that newspapers in particular were stingy about training even when they were flush. You will have to do it yourself.

So, first you must master the basic tools. If you use Microsoft Word and related programs, you need to get beyond the basics and master the more sophisticated functions. That will give you more speed and efficiency in editing.

Then look to see what skills are currently needed, and get yourself trained in them. Mike Catalini, whom I hired for The Sun's copy desk, and who is an exceptionally able editor, got interested in video and trained himself to edit it. You can look at one of the pronunciation videos to see how far he progressed.


Find someone who already knows how to do what you want to do, and ask for help. See what instructional resources are on the Web that are actually helpful. You may have to pay for a course. But it is going to be up to you to qualify yourself to do the various kinds of work that are required, and you really ought to have more than one arrow in your quiver.

GOOD LUCK: It may be that nothing will help you. Publishers of all stripes, publishers of newspapers, of magazines, of books, of electronic sites, have fallen into a collective delusion that editing isn't all that important and can be sacrificed without consequences. There is no guarantee that you will escape being invited into an office and handed the envelope. You may need to take the measly severance and open that little bar you've always dreamed about. But if you are serious about the craft and about continuing to practice it, you will have to take more responsibility for your own career. I wish you well.

*Oh, now you'll have Maurice Chevalier in your head all day. Sorry.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun