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Jan 15 / King Kaufman

How copy editing is like cleaning a room—YOUR room

Here is an elegant defense of copy editors by the Baltimore Sun’s John E. McIntyre, who makes occasional appearances in this space.

McIntyre is weighing in here on a little kerfuffle that sprang from a New York Times blog post by Tim Parks, an English writer lamenting the process by which his prose got Americanized by a copy editor at his American publishing house.

Parks’ point has to do with America’s place in the world, though that discussion is outside the scope of this post. But the piece elicited a response from Mark Liberman of the Language Log blog, who argued that the problem wasn’t the inflexibility of the American reader, it was just a garden-variety lousy copy editor.

“God save us from such copy editors,” Liberman wrote, accusing this one of, among other things, imposing zombie rules, defined as grammar rules that are enforced despite having no grounding in usage or anything else that matters. The “rule” against splitting infinitives is a zombie rule.

Liberman’s post, in turn, inspired McIntyre to jump in and defend “those damn copy editors” by explaining what they do. And here at last we’ve come to the point of this blog post. If you had the fifth paragraph in the pool, congratulations. Here’s McIntyre:

Think of a copy editor as a parent trying to clean up a teenager’s room. You open the door and, God above, there are discarded articles of clothing on every surface. You start to dig in and discover dirty plates, some with unconsumed food on them; notes and uncompleted homework assignments; still more malodorous articles of clothing, along with the unspeakable sheets; and, under the bed, dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds.

The basic function the copy editor performs, in all circumstances, is cleanup. We regularize the punctuation, correct the misspellings and typos, fix lapses in grammar and usage, untangle knotted syntax, and the like. And in public perception, that’s about it; we are essentially proofreaders, and we can keep our opinions about the prose to ourselves. (Some writers share that perception.)

But copy editors who are allowed to edit do more. They are not merely hauling the teenager’s dirty clothes down to the laundry room; they are putting the room to rights.

Remember that, while there are still copy editors—including the squadrons of them at Bleacher Report—there aren’t as many as there used to be, and at B/R and elsewhere, it’s on you to be your first, last and best copy editor. So when McIntyre is writing here about the poor, unheralded, unsung heroes of the copy desk, he’s also talking about you, that glorious superstar, the writer. 

You’re cleaning your own room.

And this is a good way to think about that last step before you publish your piece, the copy edit. It’s not just a proofread. It’s an edit. It isn’t just picking up that stray sock and putting it in the hamper. It’s thinking, “Would it be smarter to have that dresser over by the window instead of next to the closet?”

Two advantages of copy editing over cleaning a filthy room: You can see what your idea would look like without having to drag a dresser around, and it doesn’t smell bad.

  • Josep Pep Lassus IV

    Thank you King

  • Joseph George

    Thanks King for the informative piece.