THE SHEPCAT CHRONICLES

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You Want Me on That Wall: The Case for Copyeditors

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“God is in the details.”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

 
 
I’m not like you. The great majority of you, anyway.

I can never truly read for leisure or pleasure alone.

By which I don’t mean that I’m incapable of enjoying what I read or of selecting something purely frivolous or escapist instead of Serious, Important Literature. Rather, I don’t merely read anything I read.

I proofread. Everything I read.

Everything. From first-edition books to takeout menus.

I wasn’t always like this. Not even as a journalism major at the University of Kansas, though certainly the seed was planted there. Little did I know when I purchased my first Associated Press Stylebook sometime around 1987 that it would become one of the most important books in my life, alongside Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I recall finding it ridiculous that we were assigned to memorize sections of the Stylebook for class — until some years later, when it occurred to me that, through repeated use, I was absorbing whole entries and sections of the Stylebook into my everyday usage.

My true immersion into proofreading came in my first real-world journalism job, with a national gardening magazine published in Kansas City. We were a small staff, but all four editors proofed every article in every issue, regardless of who was a piece’s primary editor. In this way, I learned from my three experienced superiors every possible way to look at a piece of writing, to notice things that others didn’t, whether as a correction or a callout. Soon I was reading everything this way, as though I was trying to catch an error or an opportunity before anyone else could.

It was an occupational hazard, then, and one from which there was no turning back. But there’s also an element of sport to it, as well as a sense that what we do has great value, even if our rapidly changing world is increasingly blind to that value.

Whether you realize it or not, I and my brothers and sisters of the red pen are teaching you to read and write better, if only by osmosis, if only for the time being. Because whatever you failed to understand or learn or pay attention to in school all those years — or, to be fair, whatever your school systems with their standardized curricula may have failed to impart — we, copyeditors and proofreaders, are teaching you on the sly every day. Provided, of course, that you’re reading something edited or proofread.

If the greater volume of printed or published material that you read in a given day — newspapers, magazines, books, even online publications — has had our eyes on it first, you are learning from us by small degrees to get the fine details right in your own writing. Proper use of an em dash or en dash? That was most likely us. You’re welcome. You know the difference between further and farther? You may have brushed up against it in eighth-grade English, but if you’re my age, you’ve spent the last 30 years or so seeing them used correctly in edited material, and if you’ve paused to think about them at all, it’s because we thought about them first.

Unfortunately the egalitarian Internet — virtually unregulated, predominantly unedited — is taking over the way we consume information. And in many ways, just plain taking over.

Because as the Internet has presented itself as a more efficient delivery mechanism, a leaner, faster alternative to print journalism, it has been eating away at the readership and circulation and, consequently, the advertising revenue of newspapers and magazines, which are increasingly called upon to adapt or die in the face of this new electronic world order. And increasingly, to the great detriment of print, the ax has fallen on copy desks as much as any other department.

Even today’s best online outlets are more blog network than journalistic endeavor1, and they give their content providers free rein to post quickly without policing the quality of the writing before it goes online to be devoured or ignored over a much more truncated lifespan. Even one last read-through by the author would benefit a lot of online content, but in the battle for relevance and exclusivity, writers seldom bother to take the time. Magazine stories live a week? Newspapers live a day? The average online post measures its timeliness by the hour, even the minute, each too precious to worry about the odd typo or bewildering placeholder copy that was never cleaned up.

Text-message abbreviations and emojis aren’t actually teaching us anything about the economy of language. Or about language, period. For all the shorthand, shortcuts and slang we create, the English language is a vast and beautiful thing that still deserves our attention in order to thrive and to challenge those who read it, write it and speak it to better do so, at least on those occasions when it matters most.

A former boss messages me occasionally — though with greater frequency of late — asking why it apparently doesn’t drive me insane when I see social media littered with grammatical errors committed by otherwise educated people who should know better. I explain that I gave up the fight on a personal level a long time ago. Those people are my audience, the ones I hope will benefit from my expertise at some point, whether they read something I wrote (and rewrote) myself or edited on behalf of another, or seek out my assistance with something they’ve written. (It happens occasionally, to my great delight.) My real beef is against those with the reach, the authority and the wherewithal, who abuse their position by cutting corners and neglecting their responsibility to their own audience. In short: anyone who should be paying me (or another capable editor) to make them look good but doesn’t.

To wit, the founder of a small publishing empire once looked me right in the eye after I showed him a copy of one of his glossy newsstand magazines that I had red-lined from cover to cover and told me that proofreading such as I had just demonstrated exhaustively upon his own publication was largely subjective and (the kicker) “not in our business model.” I find it unforgivable that a publisher would be so dismissive about the content he was publishing, that he would care more about collecting your newsstand and subscription dollars than about giving you something of actual, meaningful value in return.

And while his categorizing proofreading as subjective is arguably true on a microscopic level, in the grander, big-picture scheme, his statement is utter bollocks. Good copyediting and proofreading is about thoughtful attention to every detail, applied consistently throughout the larger body of work.2 Because language and grammar are casually butchered every day — in print and online — by well-meaning people who don’t know any better, who don’t have the time, who don’t have an eye for minute or even obvious detail, and their butchery is broadcast to the public at large because there is no goalie in place to stop the puck.

Spell-check, like a condom, is only 98 percent effective. (I’ve disabled it on my own devices; my margin of error is lower.)

Prepositions aren’t interchangeable.

Neither are:

  • and and &;
  • affect and effect;
  • that and which;
  • that and who;
  • who and whom;
  • the aforementioned further (conceptual distance) and farther (physical distance);
  • lay and lie (which no one gets right, ever);
  • fewer than and less than;
  • more than (quantities or populations) and over (time or amounts);
  • like and as;
  • where (location), when (time) and in which (context);
  • to, too and two (yes, really);
  • its and it’s;
  • your and you’re; and
  • there, their and they’re.

Subject-verb agreement misses the mark.

Participles dangle with abandon.

Content may lack the appropriate context.

There’s typesetting minutiae — like correcting the habit of people trained on typewriters to put two spaces after a period, or adding a space where one is missing, or ensuring that an apostrophe that replaces characters (e.g., ’87 for 1987 or rock ’n’ roll for rock and roll) is a “9” and not a “6.” (Yes, that’s absolutely a thing. Look closer.)

And correct punctuation — for which I profess an almost unseemly passion — has everything to do with the meaning of what you’re reading. (First and foremost: apostrophes, motherf***ers.)

All of which only scratches the surface.

These are things I care about. Deeply. All because once upon a time, someone paid me — and not exorbitantly — to care about them, and today almost no one does. This is not elitism; language and grammar belong to the masses, not the classes. I and my compatriots of the red pen toil at a craft, as mathematically precise as diamond cutting and as basic as masonry, and we toil for all. At the end of the day, don’t you want us to be the ones teaching your children — by tiny increments, in nanoseconds that leave valuable data imprinted on their gray matter — to master, or at least better appreciate, the language that is their birthright? Or would you rather entrust that duty to whomever or whatever’s on the transmitting end of their smartphones?

Whether you know it or not, you want me on that wall.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Worse still are the aggregators. Consider a site like The Huffington Post, which began as a source of rigorous journalism and insightful political commentary but has since mutated into an uncontainable Hydra of global content aggregation, posting everything from world-news stories to celebrity nip-slip photos from across the World Wide Web. HuffPo still generates original content, but these days its bread is buttered by redirecting users to articles and features by other content providers that seldom exercise the same editorial standards, hence cheapening the brand of the aggregator.

2 And here, especially for those outside the journalism and publishing worlds, I cannot stress enough the importance of an internal style sheet, particularly if your company or organization is in a business or industry that speaks its own specific language or jargon that requires proper usage or throws around a lot of acronyms that require definition. Perhaps most importantly, though, an internal style sheet should be explicit about the small stuff — such minute details as whether your company prefers “US” to “U.S.” and “UK” to “U.K.,” whether or when certain proprietary words should be capitalized, or whether there should be a space on either side of an em dash.

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Written by Shepcat

July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Work, Writing

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