Weekend Wrinkle: Support a Copy Editor


Copy editors, the unsung heroes of the writing world, are finally getting recognition. Unfortunately, it is because they face losing their jobs.

Hundreds of the New York Times employees walked out June 29 to protest the elimination of  the Times’ stand-alone copy desk where about 100 copy editors toil away to make the paper readable and accurate. Those folks have been “invited” to apply for 50 copy editing positions that will be available. (For an in depth look, see the Washington Post’s “Why hundreds of New York Times employees staged a walkout.” )

For years I have watched as copy editing positions were eliminated in favor of “streamlining” communication. The result has always been mistakes, confusion, and inaccuracy flooding through (not to mention hideously bad grammar and usage).

Modern communication, especially news, is focused on speed. The faster you can get the information out, the better. Copy editing slows things down.  Heck, you can always apologize for getting it wrong later on. We all know how well that works.

Copy editors make sure that what gets out is accurate, clean, and understandable. They can also save a publication’s butt by making sure potentially libelous phrasing and misinformation doesn’t make it out into pubic. (Can you say “Sarah Palin,” NYT?)

How many times has a copy editor saved you from an embarrassing mistake? I have a friend who will call me up to let me know I’ve made an error in this blog. Bless her soul for that! I’m sending out cosmic hugs to all you eagle-eyed folks!

Copy editors know that their best work is invisible. Readers can’t see what was cut, reworked, or fact checked. But, boy, readers sure notice when that work isn’t done!

With accusations of “fake news” being flung all over the place, why would you cut holes in your safety net by laying off copy editors, especially when you’re seen as the newspaper of record in the United States?

The best headline I’ve seen about this is from The Concourse on Deadspin.com: “The New York Times Is Killing Its Soul.”



Let’s Play Copy Editor

sherlockI know! I’m a weirdo who thinks grammar is not only important, it’s fun.

Underneath my slightly (?) crazed compulsion for correctness in writing is the desire for clear content. It’s the non-repro blue ink that runs through my copy editor’s veins.

Hey, I’m not perfect; however, I do understand the value of a second set of qualified eyes.

Here are some examples of errors that probably would have been caught by your friendly, neighborhood copy editor. Can you spot them?

  1. Scientists and researchers around the world are working on tinyrobots that use organic cells in their construction. The latest such robot device to use organic sells is the soft robotic stingray… — “Stingray Robot Is Part Rat Heart and Part Breast Implant Sprinkled with Gold” by Shane McClaun, SlashGear, July 11, 2016
  2. Every year on July 11 7-Eleven gifts their customers a free frosty beverage and 2016 is no exception! –“7-Eleven Free Slurpee Day 2016: All of the 7-11 Freebies Available the Week of July 11” by Rebecka Schumann, International Business Times, July 11, 2016
  3. Signing Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Adam Clendening were smart cost-effective signings, however after another disappointing playoff exit, it leaves many New York Rangers fans wondering what is the next step? — “New York Rangers: Home Improvement” by Jonathan Marrero, Blue Line Station, July 10, 2016
  4. Their play along the boards is a contributing factor to all their turnovers which segways perfectly into the next bullet point, their turnovers in the offensive zone. –“Calderone: The 54 Year Curse Must Not Return” by Jimmy Calderone, Jr., NY Sports Day, July 9, 2016
  5. Two men who reportedly left a poorly extinguished fire at campsite have been arrested in connection with a Colorado wildfire that has burned more than 500 acres in Boulder County and forced residents to evacuate. –“2 Arrested in Connection With Colorado Wildfire; Residents Evacuating” by Eric Chaney and Andrew MacFarlane, The Weather Channel, July 11, 2016


Answers: 1. “Sells” in the second line is incorrect; 2. At least one comma is needed after the first independent clause (beverage, and), usually the singular pronoun its is used for a company, and there’s a case for using a comma to separate the numbers of the date and the company name (July 11, 7-Eleven) for clarity; 3. A comma is needed after smart since the adjective is modifying signings, there needs to be a semi-colon (signings; however,) to prevent a comma splice, and the sentence is an indirect question and shouldn’t end with a question mark (although it should be rewritten for better flow); 4. Segways are two-wheeled, electric vehicles while segues are smooth transitions from one idea to another; 5. This is a tricky one. The phrase, “who reportedly left a poorly extinguished fire at a campsite,” to me is non-restrictive since the sentence still makes sense without it. Since it is non-restrictive, it should have a comma before it and at its end.

Weekend Wrinkle: The Rise of The Nib

The NibIn the bowels of the government office building, intrepid copy editor Devon Taylor chased down a lead on a cabal so intent on twisting and bloating the writing in public reports as to make them dense and unintelligible.

“I must foil their dastardly plan to pervert the idea of freedom of information,” Devon thought as the pinprick from the pen light showed the way.

Soon the hallway opened up into a large storage area, dimly lit by flashlights in the raised hands of hooded, cloaked, chanting figures.

“Jargon is king!”

“Perfection is reached by passive voice.”

“All hail wordiness!”

The mysterious figures slowly circled a huge vat of what, from the smell, could only be lead-based ink.

Mobile device at the ready, Devon was just about to get the evidence needed to expose the cabal to the world when hands reached out and grasped Devon’s arms and legs. The captors lifted a struggling, yelling Devon and tossed the copy editor into the vat.

Sinking, sinking into the blackness, all Devon could think was, “This is it. This is the end. My quest for quality writing is thwarted!”

Then the pain came. The chemicals and lead caused an explosion of agonizing transformation to Devon’s body.  Head, arms, torso, legs – all were converted into something much more, something destined to rid the world of obtuse writing.

Devon Taylor no longer existed. Shooting up from the roiling, ebony liquid surged The Nib – Champion of Clear Writing.

Pair Beauty with Substance


“Oh! You won’t believe our new website. It’s beautiful and so professionally done!”

The young woman, a member of a local nonprofit, was very enthusiastic about the organization’s new website, so I eagerly looked it up when I got home. She was partly right.

The site was visually stunning. The photos were superb, the colors were well used and balanced, and there was just enough animation to be interesting without being annoying. It was everything we like to see in a well designed web site.

Then I started to read.

There were serious (and I mean serious) word use and grammar errors. It’s not like they were buried deep in the content, either. Some were right there in flashing headlines.

It was like opening a beautifully wrapped present only to find a moldy, half-eaten PBJ inside.

On the other hand, you could have the best content in the world, but if it looks like garbage, it will be treated like, well, garbage. In that case, it is like wrapping a diamond in wrinkled newspaper that had already been used to wrap fish.

No matter how stellar the words are, we need to dress them up nicely to get people to look. (This can be a struggle. Take it from someone who has discovered that WYSIWYG isn’t always what you get.)

But getting people to look isn’t enough to make it “professional.” The content — the message — has to be clearly and cleanly written. After all, the purpose of a website is to show people what we can offer them. If we can’t explain it clearly (and without blatant errors), they won’t stick around long enough to discover the gems we offer.

This tension between content and design isn’t new to the Internet. It has been around as long as people have presented writing to a public. There has always been a need to balance beauty with substance.

The good news is that, in our electronic age, it’s a lot easier to fix.

Now all I have to do is try to figure out a gentle way to tell all those nice people that they need someone to copy edit their site…