Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I need a new decoder ring

"Woe is us," come the cries these days from the ranks of copy editors.

Consider the poor wretches, once ink-stained but now more likely to have little black flecks on their clothes from changing the toner in the printer: beset by creeping outsourcing, the view of their jobs as superfluous, the not-so-gradual flight from quality; the amateur grammarians in the public waiting to pounce on every real and imagined mistake; the professional linguists ready to pounce on every real or imagined shibboleth; near burnout and ready to flee for the exits, according to one recent study.

"Woe is us" indeed.

As we approach the American Copy Editors Society's annual convention in a couple of months, however, it might be worth stopping for a second to consider how much of this we might have brought on ourselves. Oh, we didn't go out and seek it, but we let it fester. We let ourselves be labeled as part of the production process (a cost), not part of the news gathering process (an input). And too often, I fear, we let an image grow of a "priesthood" that works in relative isolation, performing our not-always-appreciated black magic in ways and for reasons not often well understood (or coherent, if you follow some of the discussions).

I submit as an example, a blog by one Lynn Bering, freelance journalist and former newspaper columnist in Clarion, Pa. I'm sure she meant "I want to be a copy editor when I grow up" to be in praise, or at least admiration, of the beleaguered class. But then there's this:

But in high school I discovered English and grammar and realized what I really wanted to be most of all when I grew up was a copy editor. I wanted to be meticulous with language, to be able to quote the MLA, Chicago AND AP style guides, to red-pen papers all the day long.

Alas, I became a writer instead. I didn’t have the grit for copy editing. That’s why I admire folks like Grammar Girl and Gail Gedan Spencer, who authors The Skinny blog. Copy editors know stuff writers don’t. It’s like a secret society with complicated rules and secret handshakes. I am too impatient to be a copy editor and I lack the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing.

We know stuff others don't ... like complicated rules and secret handshakes. If that is how we are perceived, I'd suggest we have a serious problem. And we know damn well this is not just one person's perception. So far, I have not seen ACES being particularly active in dealing with this.

Meanwhile, I seem to have misplaced my decoder ring and book of incantations. If you find them, send them along, will you? I never did learn the secret handshakes, and my skull on a stick is in the shop.

Update: John McIntyre, assistant managing editor in charge of copy desks at the Baltimore Sun, pens an excellent follow-up post: Let me pull back the curtain. Copy editing is not like deciphering Babylonian cuneiform or reconstructing the genetic code. Like everything else in journalism, if it were too difficult, journalists couldn’t do it.

Between that and the comments below, we have an excellent conversation going here. How can we not only pull the curtain back but make sure it stays back? Keeping a compilation of errors caught is a start. But I fear that to higher-ups that will quickly become same-old, same-old. A year ago I suggested that each copy desk should blog about the language problems it faces, become a community resource for such questions and answers, maybe put some Google AdSense on the blog to show we are not just a cost but at least have our heads in the cash-flow game.

I'm sure there are other ideas out there. For instance, industry has a quality standard, ISO9001. I'll even bet that a lot of the papers we work at have implemented it or similar quality-assurance programs from organizations such as Ifra, but in the backshop, not the newsroom. Maybe we need to talk about the pros and cons of a quality recognition program for copy desks (and, yes, I can think of a lot of problems as well as possibilities, not the least of which is defining quality in a way that is more than just a mechanical thing but that also does not impinge on press freedom).

What should ACES role be in all this?

Let's keep up the discussion.

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At 1/30/08, 12:00 AM, Blogger Phillip said...

Well, generally we do know stuff that others don't, and we do have complicated rules.

I can't really fault Ms. Bering. I would be delighted if more people realized that they are "too impatient to be a copy editor" and lack "the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing."

At 1/30/08, 1:38 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I don't fault her. I fault us for letting ourselves get painted in this corner. When the general impression is that you are engaging in black arts, it is a pretty good sign you will be marginalized at the first opportunity by those who do not understand what you do.

At 1/30/08, 9:51 AM, Anonymous LynnBering said...

Hey, Doug. Lynn Bering here. I had no idea this perception (or misperception) was an issue in copy editing. I'd be interested in knowing more. I see copy editing as an almost "lost art" and not a black art. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

At 1/30/08, 11:18 AM, Anonymous Chuck McShane said...

Maybe our introverted personalities have kept copy editors from vocalizing our worth. So much of what we do is done in the shadows, and so many copy editors like it that way. Catching style and grammar errors are one thing, but even the big catches often go unnoticed. I don't know what we can do as a trade to remedy this.

On a personal career note, I have been keeping a log of all errors I catch that would have required corrections. When it's time for performance review, my editor (I hope) will physically see the value I've added as a copy editor. Egomaniacal? Maybe. But to remain relevant, we have to remain visible.

At 1/30/08, 2:52 PM, Anonymous Commmakaze said...

You can borrow my skull on a stick; I have two. In fact, skulls on sticks for everyone! I can get more. Not everyone finds skulls on sticks appealing, though -- and that's part of the problem. No matter how many times I offer my decoder ring, complete with customized instructions for how to use it and with free remedial tutoring, most people seem less than interested. Hmmm. Yes, some of us may tend toward hermitage ... but if people were really that interested in being educated on it, there would be a lot more copy editors.

How do we make the decoder ring look tantalizingly within reach and also appealing enough that people will work for it? We need marketing gurus more than people to drag us out of our shells, mayhap. ;)

At 1/30/08, 7:15 PM, Blogger TootsNYC said...

How do we make the decoder ring look tantalizingly within reach and also appealing enough that people will work for it?


Swarovski crystals.

And an iPod doc.

One thing I've realized lately is that us copyeditors are able to catch grammar errors that writers don't is because--well, we have TIME to. We're SUPPOSED to. That's our job, and our bosses give us a certain amount of time to do it.

Writers don't have as much time to worry about some of those less-obvious things; esp. reporters. They have sources to cultivate, phone calls to make, etc. Good writers don't make bonehead mistakes, of course; but they also miss lots of subtle stuff.

Stuff that they might catch if they had several months of actually doing that aspect of the job.

At 1/30/08, 10:54 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Great comments.

Tootsnyc, you make a great point that we catch errors because, well, that's our job and it's what we concentrate on. You may often have seen me write here, when I am wearing the reporter/writer hat, that I've never written anything that couldn't use an editor. That's a tacit recognition of what you say.

Commmakaze, you touch on part of it, too - it is a form of marketing. I don't know that we need a "guru" to do it. The first step is simply to recognize that it's not enough to hunker down, do a good job, and hope it all blows over. We have to learn to manage up (internally) and out (to the public), individually and as a group.

Charles: The logs are good, and I think useful, but to a limited extent. The challenge is to take the idea beyond the individual job review. I know desks like John McIntyre's try to keep desk-wide logs, but even then, those can quickly turn into dry laundry lists. What can we do to give this quality idea some more heft?

At 1/31/08, 3:10 PM, Anonymous Chuck McShane said...

I suppose one place to start would be identifying copy editors' transferable skills. We'll never convince bean counters that fixing commas and writing funny headlines justifies even $40,000 a year and benefits. However, we're precise and detail-oriented. From my limited knowledge, those skills transfer to Web work, where one errant keystroke can ruin an entire page. Though, these days coding is increasingly irrelevant. I know of at least one paper trying to recruit traditional print copy editors to online producer jobs which combine traditional editing skills with some new media training. It might be naive, but I think every successful organization needs people who can sweat the small stuff. What other transferable skills do copy editors have that set us apart and make us valuable?

At 1/31/08, 7:19 PM, Blogger David said...

But I don't think it's our anonymity or our obsession with correctness or even our lack of justifying what we do. Most good reporters want things to be correct, most good editors understand that things are caught by the copy desk, and city editors, sports editors, etc., are also anonymous.

I feel that the problem is more our identification with abstractions -- "the paper," the proper language, the desk, the stylebook, procedure -- as opposed to what everyone else is talking about, which is "the story."

How many news people got into the business because they are ADD-challenged adrenaline junkies? They don't want to have conversations on systems problems or how much time it takes to write a caption. They want to talk about whether the D.A. is going to get caught with his pants down or how the story of a 16-year-old with cancer can be told compellingly.

Which are interesting and news, but when they're done talking about that, they're on to whether the mayor is appointing his son-in-law and is that football star going to State U. or not.

They got into this business in order to NOT have to do the sort of things we keep pointing out -- the niggling details, the underperformances, the dot screens, the subjunctive modes. They can understand them, but they're boring. It's the same thing as why they don't want to cover the local news that readers have said, time and time again, they want in their papers.

As one nationally known editor once said to me: "You're a hell of a journalist. Why are you a copy editor?" As in -- why aren't you doing something exciting that somebody like me really cares about?

There was no possibility of explaining that I thought that excellence in copy editing this was just as important to the overall success of the paper as excellence in reporting. This editor had nothing against excellence in copy editing, but on the other hand, why would anyone really care when there were so many more interesting things in the world to be concerned with?

At 2/1/08, 2:23 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Chuck: I'm glad to hear you say you know of an actual case where an organization is trying to move copy editors into online positions (hopefully doing more than shovelware). Though it has often been discussed, actual cases have been rare.

David: I think you've sketched an important point -- copy editors are process oriented. But that's exactly why they are seen as a cost; they are seen as part of the process, not part of the creative. I'm hoping we can figure out ways to change that.

Your discussion of the personality types of reporters, though as with all generalizations open to some disagreement, is more often true than not, I fear (having been one for many years, I certainly ID with some of that). And that may be one of the reasons journalism in general has problems -- we just by nature tend to be shallow beasts,the very thing we get criticized for.


At 2/1/08, 1:00 PM, Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

Thinking and linking.

Thinking: Copy editors should apply critical thinking to the news coverage and challenge the newsroom's assumptions, like a sharp-eyed blogger would.

Linking: If a reporter writes on a topic, and a columnist blogs about it, there's a multimedia gallery somewhere else on the site, comments from readers in a forum, previous coverage in the archives, responses by local bloggers and background information elsewhere online, who's going to pull all that together in a package that makes sense for the readers? Copy editors can be the value-added department, which makes the coverage more than the sum of its parts.

At 2/2/08, 12:16 PM, Anonymous Gail Gedan Spencer said...

Hell, why do you think I started my blog? I'm trying to keep myself relevant in the eyes of others, outside of being a "mere" copy editor.
But here's the funny thing about being a copy editor with a newspaper-sponsored blog. Our blog is most of the time the highest-ranked non-sports blog at our paper. We think part of it is because we are copy editors and we know how to cut ourselves off when we start getting too windy.

At 2/4/08, 10:23 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Cool blog. I think you also show that copy editors don't have to be restricted to copy-editing blogs but have a lot more to contribute. But the key is to contribute.

And Brian, excellent point that I don't think enough folks on the desk hear (or if they hear, listen to). The job you describe is one we have developed at Newsplex called "story builder." For details, see this issue of The Convergence Newsletter.


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