Copy editing in a hub: You’re your own QA

Charles Apple posted on his blog Saturday about a mistake in the pages of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., a newspaper where Charles and I once worked. I was a copy editor for The N&O for most of my 24 years there — until Aug. 22, 2011, when my job was eliminated and I moved to become a copy editor in the McClatchy Publishing Center in Charlotte, which handles the copy editing and page design for The N&O, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the Herald of Rock Hill, S.C., as well as about 20 weekly community papers distributed in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas.

I left the publishing center 7 1/2 months later, when I took a job as a copy editor for the magazines and newsletters group at a professional association in Durham, N.C. (This blog is a personal venture and does not reflect the views of my employer.)

Charles’s post runs down some of the mistakes that have come out of the publishing center, and he is quite strong in his criticism of McClatchy for allowing the quality of The N&O to suffer.  I shared Charles’s post on my Facebook page, saying that I wanted to know what others thought. Several of my friends weighed in to agree with Charles that the mistakes are embarrassing. Some friends with no connection to the N&O posted thoughtful notes lamenting the decline of quality in newspapers.

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Infographic: the different types of editing

This graphic from the Wine Press Blog explains the various editing functions in book publishing.

Source: Original infographic from WinePress of Words.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Then we played with the fanboys

I fixed a “then” comma splice just now, and then I played with putting coordinating conjunctions in front of then. (FANBOYS helps us remember the coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.)

  • I went to the music festival, and then I took a hike. (Two activities, equal and sequential.)
  • I went to the music festival, but then I took a hike. (I wasn’t sedentary all weekend.)
  • I went to the music festival, so then I took a hike. (Perhaps I ate too much food truck fare and needed to work it off.)
  • I went to the music festival, for then I took a hike. (Perhaps the music festival inspired the hike.)
  • I went to the music festival, nor then I took a hike. (This sounds profoundly unidiomatic, of course, but nor works in other contexts.)
  • I went to the music festival, yet then I took a hike. (Again, I prove I wasn’t sedentary.)
  • I went to the music festival, or then I took a hike. (Maybe I partook of a substance that makes it difficult to remember.)

If you need a good explanation of the “then” comma splice, this page could help. Scroll down to the box labeled “The Case of Then and Than.”

Keep your resources close

Someone who is part of a LinkedIn group for “grammar geeks” posted this question (slightly edited): What do people think about copy editors and proofreaders using resources while working? The poster was referring to style guides, dictionaries, the Internet, etc. Among the responses, the original poster wrote: “It could be problematic if you have to refer to resources too much. If you are really good you would not have to do that.”

I disagree. Some of the best copy editors I know consult resources often. I wouldn’t dream of answering a question about style, grammar or usage without consulting the best sources for that information, even if I am fairly certain of the answer. I also think any editor, freelance or in-house, worth his or her salt would rely heavily on printed as well as Internet resources.

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Copy editors are not (necessarily) prudes

Copy editors enforce the publication’s standards. They often have to enforce rules that they themselves disagree with or might even find distasteful or silly. That’s why this quote spotted at Jim Romenesko’s site burns me up: “It’s unclear how or why this f-bomb made it past The Times’s prude copy-editors,” writes Rebecca Greenfield on The Atlantic Wire. (The New York Times allowed the word into print as part of a quote.)

I wish to tell all of those journalists and others who have never worked on a newspaper copy desk that the only reason copy editors get the “prude” label is that we are enforcing the standards of the real prudes: our editors-in-chief and the readers they don’t want to take calls from. I might personally shy away from using the notorious f-word in print myself, but that decision was well above my pay grade when I worked on a newspaper copy desk, even when I was a supervisor. We knew the standards and we followed them.

Copy editors are skeptical of everything, and that includes the standards of polite society. Many I have known over the years are the least prudish people I’ve encountered in newsrooms. Even those who consider themselves prudes come to that mindset after a scrupulous examination of reality and their own values.

Copy editors are a diverse bunch in their personal views, but they are professionals when it comes to their work, and they know the lines that their publications won’t cross. I also would bet my last dollar that the decision to allow that word into print was NOT made by a copy editor.