You don’t know what you don’t know

Copy editors learn early that, despite diligence and best intentions, writers sometimes get facts wrong. The writers don’t mean to, but they do slip up. They may have their eyes on the big picture and the overall truth but lose sight of small details. Also, writers (and all of us) don’t know what they don’t know, so a thorough reading by someone else, especially someone who might know different things, is essential. A copy editor who has read widely and well for a number of years might have just the knowledge to spot problems, but even more important is that copy editors are trained to check. Copy editors can help writers by verifying the facts, checking the spelling of names, looking up words in the dictionary, locating places on a map, and just generally being skeptical and maybe even anxious about overlooking a error. Copy editors keep their eyes on the little things.

One of the great things about working on a copy desk with 15 to 25 people who had various interests and wide knowledge was that there was always someone on the desk who knew something that I didn’t. If I hadn’t spotted an error of fact (because I didn’t know what I didn’t know), another copy editor (usually a slot) often would. The more sharp eyes that land on a piece of copy, the more chances for errors to be caught before publication.

A couple of errors I stumbled across in newspaper accounts reminded me of this important step before publishing. One was in a police report about a missing man who was last seen “driving a Chevrolet Cruise.” I don’t know much about cars, but I commute on a busy highway most weekdays, and I know from that drive that Chevrolet has a model called a Cruze. Perhaps it sticks in my mind because of the spelling. I am sure that the newspaper accounts picked up the spelling straight from a police report because it was the same in several publications, but a copy editor who knows different things might have spotted the problem or, even better, might have verified the spelling as part of a routine before publication. (That article also had an unusual spelling for the missing man’s name. I hope that was correct.) In a newspaper profile later in the week, the writer referred to a student who “delighted in reading Chaucer in Old English.” As an English major who took a whole course in Chaucer nearly 40 years ago and who remembers only a wee bit about the Wife of Bath and the rest of the pilgrims, I thought Chaucer wrote in Middle English. I checked. Indeed the language of Chaucer is Middle English. (In contrast, the adventures of Beowulf are in Old English.) I wasn’t sure of what I didn’t know, so I had to look it up.

As many of us know, because of cutbacks in newspaper staffs and the furious pace of online publication, not enough eyes land on copy before it is published. In an ideal world, alert copy editors would read stories before publication and use their training to check the facts—keeping in mind that they don’t know what they don’t know.

But even in an enterprise where several editors see a piece before publication, errors creep in. That’s why copy editors have to be alert to their own weaknesses as well as to the pitfalls of editing and fact checking. Even if a copy editor knows a writer to be meticulous and trustworthy, the copy editor should check the facts and perhaps even become a bit of a pest to be sure that the proper names are spelled right, that the figures add up, that the date tossed off in the 10th paragraph is accurate, that the source’s credentials and background are properly rendered.

For those of us who continue to practice our trade as copy editors, errors that appear in publications (our own and others) can remind us to check what we can and to prove our value every day by what doesn’t appear in print. Remember: Trust but verify.


One Response to “You don’t know what you don’t know”

  1. Frank Wendeln

    I design books and I copy edit as well as I lay out the text. Not because I have to, just because over the years I learned it was better to actually read the text as I design its page layout. Because I learned about the last book’s subject as it was in development (mainly spelling of names/places) I caught a few mistakes the authour had missed over successive readings of the text. Still, like you say, you don’t know what you don’t know. I created a map of the Bahamas using the authour’s instructions of the old native names for the islands and there was two that were transposed by them. Pretty hard for all of us to take after all the effort getting the beautifully illustrated book developed and printed. Still, very few people will notice but that’s not the point.

    I used to write for a news website about old movies. I loved doing it, but I fact check like crazy. To write what I felt was an interesting article and depending mostly upon my memory, I wanted to make sure I was accurate before hitting that “publish” button. I’d sometimes spend a whole work day writing the article and then putting together the publisher’s required slide show. Kind of took all the fun out of the work when they kept insisting I write more often or they would “replace me” with another interested party. I earned a total of $14 for my efforts.