The essential copy editor

image image See update at the end. – D.R.

I’m zealously pro-copy editor. While I don’t always agree with CEs, I’d hate for them not to be around to argue with. I can remember one book project where I replaced a dozen likes in favor of as ifs and as thoughs, my original choices. And yet I’m grateful for all the typo catches and other hard work from the same editor.

In the perfect cosmos, even the tiniest Web site would benefit from formal copy editing (including No writer would be without his or her own protector. Just look at the atrocities that inevitably slip through here. I’d rather be able to focus more on writing as opposed to proofing, which, alas, isn’t my forte.

Now let’s parse a sentence from another Web site: “It’s hard to know, and hard to measure—but without the effort, it’s my sense that we’re headed quickly into a world only one set of eyeballs determines publication."

imageWhere’s the “where,” and just who gave us this gem? A sleepy independent blogger, typing away in his PJs? Not exactly. The sin showed up in The Newsonomics of copyediting value, some commentary from Ken Doctor, the author of Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get. It didn’t appear just anywhere. No, it was at the end of the blog post, where Doctor should have been rewarding his most conscientious and enthusiastic readers—the detail lovers most likely to agree with him. And the site was none other than the one for the prestigious Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard.

According to the Nieman time stamp, the Doctor item popped up at around 10 a.m. (Eastern Daylight, presumably) on the unlucky date of May 13. It’s now about 3:30  p.m. on May 19, and I still don’t see a fix even though an eagle-eyed reader named Sara caught the mistake at 1:08 a.m. on May 16 after some well-placed editors at various newspapers failed to comment on the irony.

image Surprise of surprise, Sara says she is an unemployed copy editor. I hope someone hires this woman in a hurry. Perhaps I even know her. Sara, by any chance do you live in an Eastern state bordering Canada? Whatever the case, I propose that news organizations settle for slimmer profits and saner executive salaries to be able to use more copy editors like Sara, and I’d hope that Ken Doctor would agree. In his piece mentioning “copyediting value,” he called for the publication of "news principle boxes" to tout the effort that went into MSM sites, including "important practices—like editing.

Yes! But isn’t it time for the MSM to cough up enough money to make those boxes mean something? And if the Nieman Foundation can free up more resources to help Ken Doctor and other contributors be at their best on the Lab site, then so much the better. Ken, I empathize. My own specialty happens to be goofs that elude spell checkers. In this example, at least, you were in my league.

imageimage Of course—as I may have shown—"practices" and "perfection" are two different words. Even The New Yorker isn’t typo-proof. But the promo that Ken Doctor suggests would be one way to help distinguish newspapers from, er, independent blogs (or hackwork from wordmills like Associated Content). My big caveat here would be to avoid turning this into an anti-blogger jihad; the news ecosystem needs both the New York Times and the typo-perping blogger in the basement.

More to come, perhaps: I’ll query Ken Doctor about the extent of copy editing he gets from the Nieman Journalism Lab and invite him to share other thoughts.

Detail: My own style is to spell “copy editor” as two different words. Same for “copy editing.”

Challenge: Put on your green visor, read the Doctor post if you haven’t already, and let us know of any glitch I haven’t mentioned. Also feel free to spot any lapses here and scold me for them. Minus a copy editor, I could well be a fellow sinner.

Update 9 a.m., May 21: Ken kindly responded via Twitter to the questions raised in my headline: “Both, perhaps.” Actually I’m confident his typo rate is lower than mine. Meanwhile Nieman Lab has fixed the glitch in Ken’s blog post.  What’s more, I understand that Nieman is now discussing its editing practices, and I hope to have a link soon. Thanks, everyone!

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David Rothman

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