Lament for the copy editors

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In an Editorial Observer column in the New York Times (16 June), Lawrence Downes goes to a museum in search of good feelings:

I went to the Newseum, a shiny new building in Washington that news companies and foundations have erected as a shrine to their industry. Since it’s my industry, too, I thought a museum, where sacred relics and texts have been placed safely in the equivalent of a big glass jar, might make me hopeful about the future.

He starts by looking for the section on copy editing — "Copy editors are my favorite people in the news business", he says — but finds nothing. Indeed,

A call later confirmed that the museum has essentially nothing about how newspapers are made today, and thus nothing about the lowly yet exalted copy editor.

Downes describes the work of copy editing and then notes that

Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.

News is shifting online. In this new world,

online news operations will shine with all the brilliance that the journalists who create them can bring. But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.

Downes's column is entitled "In a Changing World of News, an Elegy for Copy Editors".

Of course, copy editors will survive in other parts of the publishing world, though no doubt in significantly reduced numbers.

The title of this posting is an allusion to William Dunbar's poem "Lament for the Makaris" (makers, that is, poets), eulogizing the great poets who had preceded him (Dunbar — who lived from roughly 1460 to roughly 1520 — himself was makar at the court of James IV King of Scots). The central figure of the poem is Death, who has taken one poet after another — for example:

He has done petuously devour

The noble Chaucer of makaris flour,

The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre:

  Timor mortis conturbat me.

Every stanza ends with Timor mortis conturbat me.



  1. John Lawler said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    I might have known that Jack Vance (an English professor in his day job) had a literary model for the poem he attributes to his character 'Navarth' in his classic The Palace of Love, which starts:

    Drinking whisky by the peg,
    Singing songs of drunken glee.
    I thought to swallow half a keg
    But Tim R. Mortiss degurgled me.

    Not precisely comme il faut,
    To practice frank polygamy;
    I might have practiced, even so.
    But Tim R. Mortiss disturgled me.

    Tim R. Mortiss, Tim R. Mortiss,
    He's a loving friend.
    He holds my hand while I'm asleep,
    He guides me on my four-day creep,
    He's with me to the end.

    (The whole thing's available at Oikukene and Beyond)

  2. Dan Milton said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    For a preview of the newspaper world in the post-copy editor era, see Gene Weinberg's column in tomorrow's Washington Post Magazine (my Sunday sections got delivered on Saturday this week).

  3. Saint Gasoline said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Oh well, there's always the textbook industry.*

    *(But stay out, because that's my niche, and I don't want to be replaced!)

  4. john riemann soong said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    "But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly "

    Hey, that sounds like a wiki! (Wkinews, anyone?)

    I don't think this characterisaton is accurate, because copyeditors are omnipresent even in the wiki format, so the result is always less errors over time.

  5. Rick S said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    "…copyeditors are omnipresent even in the wiki format…"

    Ah, so that explains why one so rarely finds spelling/grammar/usage/punctuation errors in Wikipedia.

    It would be interesting to compare the ratio of copyeditors to authors in print media versus Wikipedia, wherein authors and copyeditors are seldom distinguished (in either sense) and often overlap. I could argue that in WP the ratio is smaller to begin with, and shrinking faster. Even if you like copyediting (I do), it's discouraging to face a swarm of locusts armed only with a flyswatter.

    The best that can be said is that better-written articles (i.e. those that are well researched, balanced, and on more noteworthy topics) are more likely to attract the perfecting efforts of copyeditors. ("Hmm…which article shall I review: the one on Tristan da Cunha, or the one on the latest Poke'mon character?")

  6. language hat said,

    June 22, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    copyeditors are omnipresent even in the wiki format, so the result is always less errors over time.

    This is simply not true — some entries get noticeably worse over time. Like Rick S, I (a copyeditor by trade) don't bother trying to fix the really messy entries; if I'm going into Edit mode to make a substantive correction or addition, I'll usually do some grammar/punctuation cleanup, but I'm not about to spend my days doing it as a thankless and easily reversed practice.

  7. Graham said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 2:19 am

    Re copyediting on Wikipedia, I've done it on some entries, but there's nothing quite like the frustration of knowing someone with less regard for or experience with grammar will soon tarnish a newly cleaned text.

    That said, if you look at change logs on Wikipedia pages, a large portion of the edits are tagged with the term "wikify," which in my eyes really is copyediting in the specific hyperlink grammar of Wikipedia. For some, it's more disturbing to see an un-linked name than it is to see the name of an article appear with no quotes. Perhaps Wikipedians have decided to privilege the systemic standards of the encyclopedia over concerns of pre-computer syntax.

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