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:
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.
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.
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.