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Aug 23 / King Kaufman

Copy editing: You will work, you will learn, it will be worth it

John McIntyre, an editor at the Baltimore Sun, teaches a copy editing class every year at Loyola University Maryland, and he begins by warning his undergraduate students that the class is “appallingly dull.”

“A student from last term complained in the course evaluation that ‘he just did the same thing over and over day after day,’” McIntyre writes in a blog post about the speech he’ll give to his new charges in two weeks. “So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.

“I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can.”

The smart ones will stay put.

Bleacher Report has a team of copy editors, but in today’s quick-draw media landscape, you really have to be your own copy editor. You have to be the one to do that work, to stop being the creative, right-brain writer for a few minutes and put your detail-oriented, logical, rational left brain to work.

It can be dull, but it’s worth the effort. It’s also a separate skill, one that—who knows—could be more marketable than the writing skill in the future. And am I using too many dashes right now?

I wish I could send you to McIntyre’s copy editing class. He sounds like just the kind of persnickety fussbudget who can really learn you about the craft. Later in the speech, he tells his students, “I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to practice your coping skills.”

But you can do a couple of things. First, you can listen to him a little more:

Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I’m going to talk to you about basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I’m going to advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I’m going to show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.

Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.

Second, you can educate yourself elsewhere, and one way to do that is through the Bleacher Report Copy Editing Internship.

It’s geared toward undergrad and graduate journalism students, preferably with some hands-on experience, but also welcomes working professionals with some journalistic experience. The 12-week program pairs each intern with a trainer, and emphasizes the nuance of online content management.

As McIntyre says, you will have to work, and you’ll be performing serious editing. You’ll also, as you would if you found yourself in McIntyre’s class and didn’t bolt when he turned his back, learn a lot.

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Hat tip to University of South Carolina journalism instructor Doug Fisher, whose blog post pointed me to McIntyre’s. I wrote about a previous post by Fisher yesterday, and am thinking of just turning this blog over to him.

  • Rich Leivenberg

    A far-too-often overlooked and under-appreciated part of being a good writer.