Let’s hear from copy editors

Anisha Frizzell writes me on Facebook:

“This columnist’s perception of the copy desk is so off base, aside from the fact that they’re not appreciated, that I almost thought this piece satire at first.”

Your thoughts on it?

* The lonely life of the lowly copy editor



  1. I believe copy editors are underappreciated, but if this individual is serious, he needs a swift kick in the ass.

    It is true that copy editors can be an anal retentive bunch — details like grammar, spelling and punctuation are important. I believe many of us also go through a phase as we are entering our crafts where we get so hung up on the finer points of grammar and style that we do stifle a writer’s creativity. Certainly it should nto happen, but it does.

    But if you work in a dynamic copy desk environment as I did for many years, where questions were encouraged, creativity praised highly, and the focus, ultimately, was on clarity, and where the other editors understand the copy desk should be involved in special projects early on (because creativity does take time), some really exciting and wonderful things can happen.

    Theses have been, throughout my career, some of the most talented, artistic people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I am very proud of the 17 years I spent on the copy desk and the people I met and worked with along the way there.

    Yes, the job can be tedious, particularly when you work with a reporter who makes the same mistakes over and over and has no interest in learning to correct them. That can begin to feel a little like janitorial work, picking up the mess of someone who doesn’t give a damn.

    But there is an art to what we do. Writing a one-column, four-deck, 54-point headline in Franklin Gothic Condensed, for example, is a challenge worthy of any good copy editor. Iy’ve got maybe four words or so to meaningfully summarize a story for the reader.

    Writing a headline that takes not only the story, but the artwork into consideration is another uniquely copy desk function.

    It seems to me that Yoni Goldstein is writing with an arrogance exceeded only by his own ignorance about the subject. Copy editors are a talented group of people who do more than simply clean up your copy and write headlines.

    They make sure your voice is clearly understood by the most important people, the readers, and that your story is clean and pressed and presentable. Yoni ought to think about that the next time, for example, he realizes he walked out into the street with his fly open.

    Lowly indeed.

  2. Perry Gaskill said:

    And today’s copy-desk trivia question is: A “Yoni” is a Sanskrit word describing which part of the female anatomy?

  3. Becky Hendricks said:

    The writer must be one of those other editors he writes about, or a second-rate or very new reporter, because everyone else (including the good reporters) knows quite well that the stories that come to the copy desk are nowhere near free of errors readers would notice.

    People are human, they make mistakes, and the people in the newsroom who aren’t too full of themselves to admit that are just glad someone’s giving the stuff another read. In 20-some years copy editing (among other things) I’ve been honored by more than a few “thanks.” While Mr. Goldstein’s view isn’t exactly uncommon, I don’t find it much among good journalists.

  4. Susan Moynihan said:

    I started off as a copy editor, and was told by going that route my career path would be limited to copy chief. I didn’t agree, and have since been a travel editor and deputy editor for national magazines, and am currently editor in chief of one. I draw on the constancy and exactitude of my copy-editing experience every day, and it makes me a better editor. I also impart it to my editorial team — one of whom is another former copy editor herself. That’s one of the reasons I hired her.

    In these days of changing media and too-frequently-shuttered outlets, I also draw on the words of another famous copy editor, Henry Miller, who said “The world can blow up – I’ll be here just the same to put in a comma or a semicolon.” Craftsmanship and attention to detail matters in the long run, whatever the medium.

  5. @Ted Schnell:

    Speaking as a former copy editor, I feel compelled to point out that, in graph 2 above, anal retentive should be hyphenated. Ahem.

    Given the other typos and grammatical miscues in your comment, one does wonder if — while being undeniably dynamic — you were a very good copy editor. Or maybe I’m just being too anal retentive (not used as a modifier there, thus no hyphen).

    In any case, I found Yoni’s lament poignant and spot on, for the most part. But in my case at least she (he?) was wrong; I did move off the copy desk and onto a writing career, though not exactly one likely to find its way into a Hollywood epic.

    I agree that headline writing is the best part of a copyeditor’s job, or was until Google killed it with literalmindedness. A good pun gets you squat these days with search engines.

    But Yoni is right; copyediting as a profession is going away, mostly due to draconian Webonomics. As a blogger I rarely get the benefit of a good copyedit, though I could certainly use one.



  6. jeff rubin said:

    It is beyond moronic to suggest people are more interested in the thought than in the way in which it is expressed.

    The two notions are inseparable. You can’t begin to get at the idea unless the writing provides a “way in.”

    And what we copy editors do is so much more consequential than dotting i’s and crossing t’s. We read the stories, as surrogate readers, trying to anticipate all the questions actual readers may have. We read the stories, trying to identify rough patches, missing facts — all the things that can get between the reader and the idea being expressed.

    By the way, I’ve been on both sides of the equation, and was a reporter for years before I became a copy editor. I’m not putting down writers, nor am I saying they bear no responsibility for finding and plugging those story holes themselves. But it’s a simple truth of this profession that even the best journalists may be too close to their own writing and reporting to spot problems of this nature.

    But let’s put all this aside for one moment. I’ll even take off my green copy editor’s visor and say this, as a news consumer: I, for one, still care about details. I, for one, still appreciate knowing that there are people on a newsroom’s payroll that look after both the quality of the writing and the accuracy of the reporting.

    I, for one, want to make it very clear that the silly goose who wrote this article does NOT speak for me.

  7. jeff rubin said:

    Sadly, this “writer” is probably sitting somewhere with an offal-eating grin, enjoying the fact that this article stirred people up. Makes we wish we had more editors, particularly editors with enough sense to kn ow the difference between some idiotic rant against copy editors and pieces of real substance.

  8. pilotgrrl said:

    Excuse me, but the author of that piece must have been a copy editor for a junior high school newspaper, like I was, back when everyone got a dittoed copy.

  9. Wow, I really hope this is the writer’s attempt at sarcasm.

    Copy editors are valuable journalists and an integral part of the newsroom. Sure, they catch typos, but the good ones also catch inconsistencies, holes in stories and, quite often, libelous material.

  10. J.W. said:

    1, He is right; no one does care about what copy editors do. 2, He is an ass; who would say things like that about their co-workers in a column for publication? 3, Barbs like this only make copy editors stronger.