What Editing Is, What Editing Isn’t

Many thanks to those who participated in my (extremely unofficial) copy editing test last week. *At the bottom of this post I have typed out my own answers as I would have responded, along with the responder whom I dubbed the winner of two free beers.

But before we get all pretzel-and-Blue Moon-happy…

The aim of the test was in no way to demonstrate a superior understanding of the rules of grammar, or a more sophisticated method to wording sentences, or any sort of prescriptivist viewpoint.

What I’m railing against is the idea that writers don’t need editors, especially when proper names (“Franzon”) continue to be misspelled in articles and improper usage (mantel vs. mantle) continues to pop up in published stories. The rest of the mistakes I inserted, more or less, are idiosyncratic to their respective style rules (AP vs. Chicago vs. “house” publication styles), which, of course, are known best by teams of copy editors who work with them every day. (At least, in my experience, when it comes to newspapers.)

Indeed, to insist on apposition, for instance, when writing about Night Content Production Manager, John McIntyre, is idiomatic to conventional grammar rules (if you can believe conventional grammar rules ring in my ears like the soulful sounds of John Coltrane). To write out “Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre” without placing John McIntyre’s name in apposition is to follow, generally, AP Style rules (same goes with capitalizing his title, but only when it precedes the proper name).

You see what I’m getting at. The test was not designed to test anyone’s knowledge of idiosyncratic style rules, which are flexible, malleable, and specific to various publications’ standards. (I mean, for chrissakes, first AP tells me email is e-mail, and then they tell me e-mail is email.) It was designed, however, to slap around this idea that gutting copy editing staffs at newspapers will lead to better custodianship of the written word by reporters, and therefore you, the reader, will still receive a bang-up product while they, the newspaper, saves some money.

No. No. No. Might as well just bang your head against a wall instead. And while the newspaper industry continues to “experiment” with piss-poor ways of cutting costs in a dying industry, that’s about the only thing that can numb the pain. Maybe if enough brain cells are damaged, you won’t even notice the errors.

*Congratulations to Erin, who was the first to post her responses and noticed precisely the issues in need of correction. Also, congratulations to MichiganCityDDS, a responder who threw in that hyphen between “dapper” and “looking” (I’m partial to hyphenating), in addition to making the other necessary corrections. I might also point you to the responses of Not a Grammarian; I happen to know he is a professor, and I think it’s interesting to see the variability between how a journalist would correct these sentences versus how an academic corrects these sentences.

My own corrections:

1. “What are you doing?” shouted Regina. “How dare you rest your beer on the mantel without using a coaster!”

2. On a bright, sunny day in Baltimore, Michael set out on his bicycle down to Patterson Park, where he looked forward to reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel.

3. “For shame,” said Betty. “And to think we were about to go outside to grill wieners right as Congressman Weiner was tweeting photographs of his wiener to some girl in Seattle.”

4. I will be attending the play with Sally, who is going to be dropped off by her parents John and Margaret, whom I met last Sunday.

5. The Baltimore Sun’s Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre is perhaps the most dapper-looking gentleman in Baltimore City; indeed he looks like one of the cast members of the AMC show Mad Men.