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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.


Written by Shepcat

July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Work, Writing

Well, That Was Certainly Humbling

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Thursday morning, the culprit responded, via e-mail1:

Thanks for the update on my “disgusting freaking Kleenexes”. If you go back to day you will find another “disgusting freaking kleenexes” on top. Please note that that is not mine… far as the plastic wrappers etc. Please fell free to come by and check my trash….you will see that I do use the correct container….I would like to talk to you “man to man”, but I think you like to send e-mails….anyway I am sorry that you have to dig through the trash. I will do my best to watch to see if I can remember to do your request as I should. Brent thanks again for the update. C—

Tail between my legs, I replied in kind:

If I’ve accused you in error, then please accept my apologies.

The fact remains, though, that on the most recent occasion I found kleenexes in the recycling bin, they were mixed among the KC scan envelopes. Whether someone else is responsible for handling those envelopes after you, or someone is merely clever enough to single you out as a fall guy, I only want to put an end to this as soon as possible.

I handled this matter by e-mail — however badly — in the interest of discretion. Thanks for your own discretion, and again, my apologies.


Whether I truly wronged C— or he was merely reacting as anyone would when cornered, only time will tell. But I dropped by his desk a little later to apologize again, this time man to man, and the fact is he was an absolute mensch about the whole matter, extending his hand in diplomacy even before I was finished apologizing. We chatted. He exhibited genuine understanding about the situation and promised his continued cooperation. We parted on friendly terms.

Now I find myself in the awkward position of refining my investigation and retrenching against the other, actual culprit without blowing my cool and making another accusation short of presenting hard evidence and perhaps DNA analysis instead of the admittedly circumstantial evidence on which I based my case against C—.

I don’t like being wrong even once. I refuse to be wrong twice. And now I feel particularly beholden to C—, to clear his good name (at least for my own peace of mind) while handling the second, decidedly final sting and takedown as quietly and discreetly as I attempted to handle the first, and much more intelligently at that, because I realize that this episode shines a spotlight on me as the embattled, self-righteous, by-any-means-necessary employee that I all too often am in the workplace.

That said, if it turns out that C— was lying to me just now, I’ll flip him like a cheese omelet.

UPDATE, 12/4/09: Friday afternoon, in a totally unrelated conversation which touched upon our co-workers’ collective disregard for signage posted throughout our office, another of my longsuffering compatriots remarked, “…And then there’s C—, who always throws his kleenexes in his recycling bin and then dumps them back there. He knows he’s not supposed to, but he does it out of spite. I’ve never actually seen him do it, but I know it’s him. I just know it.”

Suddenly, I don’t feel quite as bad about what may have been a rush to judgment on my part.

1 Feel free to insert your own mental [sic]s as you read along. I did not want to interrupt the visual flow of C—’s e-mail with my editorial meddling.

Written by Shepcat

December 3, 2009 at 9:23 am

Posted in Work

Of Course You Realize This Means War

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Some of my readers are familiar with my ongoing struggle to explain the concept of recycling to my co-workers. In addition to incidents I may have reported here, a certain sharply worded — and quite witty, I thought — e-mail missive, one of two I’ve composed to explain the process, made the rounds among some of you awhile back.

Recently my powers of deduction caught up with a certain repeat offender in the office. As quietly and discreetly, but forcefully, as possible, I called him out Tuesday. I’ve experienced some other issues with him recently, unrelated to recycling, and I thought now would be the ideal time to illustrate for him that, though, like him, I’m among the lowliest grunts in our office, in my mailroom and in my warehouse I am the law and the lord of all I survey. Hence the following e-mail message:


Having ascertained that you, in fact, have a trash can in your cubicle, right there within arm’s reach, I would like to encourage you to use it.

Having determined that it’s your plastic food wrappers and used kleenexes I keep finding in the recycling bin — and I know this because I find them mixed in with [your] Kansas City Region scan envelopes — I must insist that you start using the aforementioned trash can to dispose of such items and other non-recyclable matter.

Often I have to dig into the recycling bin to remove other items that people have discarded there in error. Occasionally, people recycle old magazines that others sift through for reading material. The last thing any of us need is to contract swine flu or hepatitis or whatever other communicable disease you might be blowing into your kleenexes.

I’ve sent two explicit e-mails on this subject already. I’ve posted explicit signage on the bins themselves. And because you seem to have heeded none of these requests to date, I must now ask you man to man, please — pretty please, with sugar on it — separate your trash, and particularly your disgusting freaking kleenexes, from your recycling.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Brent Shepherd
Mailroom Supervisor

I’m a reasonable man. I’m generally non-confrontational. But I intend to exercise what little authority and autonomy I have been given within my sphere of endeavor and the parameters of my position.

It is my sincere hope that C— is just smart enough to interpret the subtext of the correspondence reprinted above, specifically: Do as I say, old man, or so help me, I’ll take off my shoe and beat you with it ’til you’re unconscious. If he’s not, then I’ll have to say it to him out loud in just so many words, and that’s when complaints get filed and supervisors get involved and people start throwing about phrases like “abuse of power” and “hostile work environment.”

To which my only reply is, You have no idea.

Written by Shepcat

December 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Work

Some People Never Learn

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The remedials who work in shipping at the Staples warehouse are apparently still employed, still plugging away, still straining to wrap their minds around spatial relations. I suppose we’re making progress, though, because this time, at least, they didn’t send me an empty box.

No, today they shipped me a single 50-count sleeve of Solo 12 oz. paper drinking cups, measuring roughly 20¼” tall by 3½” in diameter, and they packed it in a box measuring 21” x 14” x 12”. No AirFill bubbles or packing foam this time. Just a single sleeve of cups rattling around in a box large enough to hold at least a dozen. And this time, instead of sending it out on one of their own delivery trucks, they (or we) paid to ship it via UPS Ground.

Why we needed only 50 paper coffee cups or how they managed to short us 50 on a previous order, I can only speculate.

Again, I must come to grips with the idea that I can’t be in more than one place at a time, can’t be the brains of every operation — at least, not without staging a coup d’etat and deploying my own goon squads to enforce the newly decreed laws of the land. Instead I’ll just settle for my consolation prize: a nice, sturdy, reusable cardboard box.

Written by Shepcat

August 28, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Work

Tales from the Mailroom

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Tuesday morning Staples delivered an empty box to me.

I’m not making this up.

One of our smokers was taking a cigarette break at the back door, and he signed for the box and brought it to my desk. It was light as air, so I wondered aloud, “Is there even anything in it?”

“It didn’t hurt my back to lift it,” he joked. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have brought it to you.”

So I opened it, and sure enough, the box — measuring roughly 14½ by 11 by 8½ and weighing a total of 12.2 ounces — contained nothing but a perforated strip of five plastic Air-Fill bubbles and the adhesive packing slip whose absence from the previous day’s delivery of spiral-bound steno notebooks had gone entirely unnoticed.

If it was really that important (it isn’t; we throw out the packing slips and supply-order paperwork pretty much immediately), they could have slipped it in an envelope and mailed it to us for 44 cents.

Instead, the geniuses at the distribution center assembled a box, tossed in the slip, pumped some air into the packing bubbles, sealed the box, slapped a bar-coded address label on it, scanned it into their tracking inventory, then loaded it onto a truck, making their driver go out of his way to deliver to us a virtually empty box.

All of which would be entirely pointless if I weren’t a reduce-reuse-recycle guy who’ll end up shipping something before week’s end using both the box and the bubbles — together, in all likelihood. So, you know, thanks for the box, I guess.

Morons. They’re everywhere.

Written by Shepcat

July 21, 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Work

Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Snow nor the Faulty Wiring and Fuzzy Logic of the Customers We Serve Shall Stay Us from Our Appointed Rounds

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The first thing I do every morning at work is weigh and sort the incoming mail, the preponderance of which is reporting paperwork submitted by hundreds of grocery stores, each envelope and its contents looking not much different from the next. I sort it according to regional divisions and file it in the mail slots of the administrative assistants assigned to those regions, after which it is out of my hands and I don’t really think about it much until 8 a.m. the following morning.

Every now and then, though, one distinguishes oneself from the rest of the pack.

For example, there’s a woman at one of the Kansas City stores who eschews address labels and instead transforms her plain white #10 envelopes into tedium-inspired works of art. We might receive a half-dozen or more from her on any given day, and each one will be addressed in different colors of felt-tip marker, the letters drawn in bold flourishes and embellished with outlines, polka dots, fattened endpoints, what-have-you. (One of our admins has even pinned a small exhibition of these minor works to the wall of her cubicle.)

That anonymous artist represents the high-water mark of the morning mail, though. More often, when someone pulls out the stops to make a name for oneself, it is one of the rabble who resides in the muddy shallows of intellectual achievement — like the people who wrap two layers of heavy-duty packing tape around the flap of an envelope, signaling, among other things, their naked distrust of modern advancements in mucilage.

Friday morning, one such undeveloped tadpole wriggled free from the primordial ooze in Wichita, Kansas, and staked so bold a claim on the mantle of workplace idiocy as to dare all others to strip him or her of the title.

Which is not to say that the achievement lacked imagination. No, it takes a mind unburdened by guile and conventional logic to devise a solution so far outside the box that even Plato, who first declared necessity to be the mother of invention, would likely respond, “OK, I didn’t see that one coming.” Behold:

For desperate want of a 9” x 12” envelope in which to mail a stack of paperwork about a quarter-inch thick, the anonymous office drone in question apparently dug through the trash and salvaged halves of two separate 9” x 12” (or perhaps 10” x 13”) envelopes — one a darker brown shade of manila, the other a brighter yellow shade — then stapled them together to enclose the aforementioned paperwork before applying a return-address label and printing the forwarding address on the makeshift “front,” applying postage, and sending the “envelope” on its way.

In point of fact, the two manila halves were stapled together on only three sides, so the result was more like a pita pocket than an envelope per se. Because the fourth side was unstapled, I checked to see if this master of innovation had perhaps stapled the whole package somewhere in the middle as a means of keeping the paperwork secured inside the “envelope.” Alas, he or she had not.

Also remarkable is that the U.S. Postal Service delivered the item exactly as it was originally posted. Ordinarily they might secure such an item in a clear plastic bag to ensure its safe delivery, particularly in the event it had been damaged in transit or handling. But in this instance, it’s as though the Postal Service wanted to let the item stand on its own merits, even as they disavowed any responsibility for its condition and disposition. (Time will tell whether all the original paperwork arrived safely at its destination, against all odds, like the animal protagonists in Homeward Bound.)

However one slices it, though, this is a personal achievement of jaw-dropping magnitude. In the annals of human endeavor, I’d say it ranks just ahead of the redneck inventor and marketing wiz who gave the world TruckNutz.

Written by Shepcat

May 1, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Work

Take Your Children to Work Day

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It’s a terrific bonus to have a little youth and vitality in the ordinarily staid environs of the office workplace — it changes the tenor and tone of the building ever so slightly, relaxing the mood and putting people on their better (if not in fact their best) behavior.

But the truly depressing thing about today is seeing a shy, tentative 11-year-old girl, who stood by only once and watched me operate our enormous Canon ImageRunner 7086 — the tireless mechanical heart that incessantly pumps paper through the arteries and organs of this otherwise lifeless cadaver — return about a half-hour later and operate it fearlessly, without any help from me. Meanwhile, there are people who live in this office 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, who are sometimes puzzled by the simplest functions of the most common machinery.

I realize it’s specified in my job description that I am to know how these things operate, but c’mon, people — it’s a copy machine, not the NORAD missile-defense system. You needn’t imbue it with mythical powers; apparently it’s so simple, even a child can operate it.

Written by Shepcat

April 23, 2009 at 9:17 am

Posted in Work