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Monday, March 22, 2004

Ode to copy editors

There's not much to be said about the period except that most writers don't reach it soon enough.
—William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 1998

I describe myself as a writer and editor, but I often wonder if you can effectively be both. I work hard at both, though rarely at the same time. As a freelance writer, I have several colleagues I like to review my work. I think it's important to have that extra set of eyes and their input always strengthens my work. In turn, I give the same level of care and attention to those who ask me to edit.

There are two people to thank for teaching me the skill of editing. Ellen Walker was a chain-smoking newspaperwoman (in the spirit of traditional newspapermen) who put the fear of God in me, but also made me into a reporter. She took a chance on a young girl with five measly clips and taught her the ropes about being a reporter—asking the right questions, the impact of good photography, filling in the holes of the story, finding the larger issues at play. I am forever grateful to her for giving me my start. She had the ability to make me feel as if my chosen profession could not have been more ill-suited. And just when I was near giving up, she would come to me from behind her typewriter and say, "You nailed it, kiddo. Well done (while exhaling a steady stream of cigarette smoke)." It was just enough encouragement to keep me pushing harder. I wanted to make her proud of me.

The other editor, Brenda Lewison, was far more refined and her way with words is truly inspiring. I've seen her take copy that was pretty good and make it spectacular, with a simple shift in emphasis or stronger word choice. She was a born teacher and I'm grateful for the many hours in which she shared her passion for words with me.

I quoted the great William Zinsser at the beginning of this post. His book, "On Writing Well," is required reading for anyone who uses words (which is just about everyone). I've read my copy, now with yellowed pages and Post-It notes protruding from pages with my favorite passages, at least three times and think it time to read again. He's a writer's writer, but understood well the impact of a good editor.

"What a good editor brings to a piece of writing is an objective eye that the writer has long since lost, and there is no end of ways in which an editor can improve a manuscript: pruning, shaping, clarifying, tidying a hundred inconsistencies of tense and pronoun and location and tone, noticing all the sentences that could be read in two different ways, dividing awkward long sentences into two short ones, putting the writer back on the main road if he has strayed down a side path, building bridges where the writer has lost the reader by not paying attention to his transitions."

I've heard it said that a good editor can make a mediocre writer great, but a mediocre editor can make a good writer bad. I think that's true and I've seen it in my own career. As a writer and editor, I have immense respect for the audience. I think we owe it to them to deliver the very best, no matter the medium.

I'm often struck at those who snoot their noses at copy editing, many of whom reside in the business world ("that's only for newspapers" I've heard one consultant say). Well, I don't care if you're writing a newsletter, a sales letter, an annual report or a thank you letter, good grammar and clear writing will always prevail. I know the CEO of one large publicly traded company who writes amazingly well in his annual report. During our kids' baseball game recently, I asked about the quality of his annual report. "I do my own writing," he responded. I told him it was uncommonly good. He said if you're CEO of a company and you can't communicate well, you don't deserve to be CEO. I couldn't agree more.

One of my favorites places to visit on the Web is the Poynter Institute,even if it heavily emphasizes newspaper (while I work in magazine). Friday's post had a great piece titled, "Is Anyone Editing Their Copy?* Copy Editors take the fight against error and inaccuracy from print to the Internet. (*But shouldn't it be "his or her copy?)." It recommended several blogs on copy editing: Prints the Chaff, A Capital Idea and Copy Massage.

It also had a top 10 list that I love and have shared with my colleagues at my former job, where I was managing editor and asked to review all manner of words. It was signed simply, "With love, from Wendy."

1. We care deeply about accuracy and credibility.
2. We're here to help; we're not the enemy.
3. We're detail-oriented -- because readers are.
4. We have wide-ranging interests and expertise.
5. We ask questions because we don't have all the answers.
6. Ours is a difficult craft and we're working hard to improve. We know you're trying hard, too.
7. We love a good story. We're excited about good work. We're all journalists, after all.
8. We love to show grace and humor under pressure.
9. We fix mistakes, but we don't rub them in your face.
10. We might often be thought of as anonymous, but we never want to be voiceless.
11. We're often the people who carry a vision through to the end.
12. We accept the responsibility of being the last line of defense.
13. We do our very best work when we collaborate with our colleagues throughout the newsroom.
14. And as this started out as a Top 10 List, it's obvious that we can't write short either.

Happy writing—and editing!

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