Times-Delphic copy editor unloads

At the beginning of this course, we each compiled a list of responsibilities of a copy editor. Little did I know at the time that I would soon be employed as a copy editor with the campus newspaper, The Times-Delphic.

So far, I’ve learned copy editors should first have experience as writers because submitting a story can sometimes feel like ordering coffee at Starbucks.

  • The barista (editor)
  • will listen to your order (read your draft)
  • and yell the order back to you (return your copy)
  • in his own ‘Starbucks language,’ switching around the order in which you recited the description of your drink (with so much red ink all over your copy, it looks like a scene straight out of “Carrie”)
  • all the while with a look of disdain on his face.

Copy editors should respect the sanctity of a writer’s distinct voice in a piece (while following AP style, of course) otherwise the publication ends up reading like a boring, homogenous nonfat-decaf-cafe` latte.

With that said, a copy editor’s military-quality search and destroy missile (a red pen) can be reduced to a mere sniper rifle with just one revision by the writer or section editor before it reaches his/her desk.

When I told her I got the job, my mother sent me a link to the 2009 Dow Jones Grammar Test, which promptly took me down a peg.

I’ve also gained a renewed appreciation for Vampire Weekend’s song and video “Oxford Comma,” and the answer to a revolutionary question.

What experiences have people had with editors? Anything resembling the example in chapter 8 of our Coaching Writers textbook, when you read the story and it looks nothing like the draft you submitted?

Finally, what do copy editors call Santa’s elves?


7 responses to “Times-Delphic copy editor unloads

  1. Of course, one could just as easily argue that writers should have some time in as editors, too. That way the editors might not see the same problems over and over and over. Mutual respect is really what it is.

    Your comment on “voice” is interesting and has been one of those contentious issues through the ages – is the “voice” really that of the publication or should there be more voice of the writers and less of the institution? I think the cacophony of the Internet is solving that for us in a good way, nudging institutions to recognize more of the individual’s voice. But it’s hard to move institutions.

    Ultimately, of course, neither matters. It’s the reader who does, and if the voice gets in the way of understanding, no matter whose voice it is, the voice has got to give.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Doug. (Professor Fisher teaches at U of South Carolina. Here’s his blog: http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/ )

    You’re right: I’ve been both a reporter and an editor, and being on both sides made me deeply appreciate the other. Editors have more credibility with reporters if they’ve been one. That said, however, great reporters don’t always make great editors. In fact, they rarely do.

    Loved the Santa’s elves joke, and so happy to find someone else who loves “Oxford Comma”!

    Q: Where do you hide something from a reporter?
    A: In her AP Stylebook

    Q: How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: One, but first he has to rewire the entire building.

  3. I love the Starbucks analogy! So true…

    I’d like to know how much a copy editor should change the voice of a piece. I know it’s different for every publication (and I’m sure magazines and newspapers differ quite a bit too). But isn’t the job of a copy editor just to change grammar and punctuation? How often do they change tone and voice?

  4. Riane:
    You pigeonhole copy eds too much, especially these days when the job is being subsumed partly into the assigning editor role (or even more so, in some cases, when reporters are being expected to be their own editors).

    The job of the copy editor is first and foremost to be a surrogate for the reader. In that role, if the writer’s deathless prose (or voice) gets in the way of the understanding, then the copy editor has every right – and duty – to work on that (assuming the institution allows it; it’s true that in some shops copy eds are told just to put in the commas and periods, and the right coding, and move along. But these are not copy editors, they are copy processors.).

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Doug. I’ve worked with a few professional copy editors who are simply grammar/comma people, but when I copy edit for student publications I often change voice as well.

    It’s definitely interesting how job titles in journalism are more nebulous these days. Everyone is expected (to some degree) to be able to do it all–assigning editors become copy editors, writers become web publishers, photographers become multimedia experts, etc.

  6. Mary Bess Bolling

    It is very true that almost all position seem to overlap in the world of journalism. Journalism is an ever-advancing field. It takes a driven individual to stay ahead of the curve, while writing for print and online, editing and designing.

    In response to the question about voice, I tend to try to save the tone and style of the piece as much as possible. I’ve found that writers submit better work on a consistent basis when they open the paper and read an article that they actually wrote, rather than a piece butchered to an extent that it barely resembles their work. That’s an aspect of editing I would have never considered prior to holding this position.

  7. I definitely can relate to the conversation Riane and Mary Bess are having. Sometimes I feel very overwhelmed with the idea that a professional journalist has to be proficient at writing, editing, and designing for several types of publications (print, web, etc.) and know how to shoot photos and videos, put together multimedia presentations or sidebar components, and upload it all to the internet.

    I’m not much of an experimenter. I like to learn something “the right way” and then put it into practice. I am concerned that this mindset won’t fly in the field of journalism. I appreciate the many efforts the School of Journalism has put forth so that we stay up-to-date with technological advancements. But, I can’t ignore that nagging static people always bring up that some huge percentage of the jobs we’ll hold in the future are jobs that haven’t even been created yet. How am I supposed to prepare for those. But, I remain optimistic that conferences and continuing education classes will keep me up-to-date in whatever field I choose. And, I know that even as technology changes, the skills we learn will be applicable. We just need to train ourselves to adapt. But, the fundamentals always apply: follow the SPJ Code of Ethics, think of the reader, be clear and informative,f and seek truth and report it.

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