So copy editors are complex people. You do a tough job,
under tough conditions, for modest return and respect.
Yet somehow it is still wonderful.
It is stimulating. It is creative. It is exciting. It is intellectually challenging. And it is powerful.
Perhaps the most famous editor of all time, Max Perkins, the Scribner's genius who masterminded the work of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ring Lardner, among many others, once told his wife Louise that he wanted to be an editor because you could be "a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone's noticing."
The legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn ran his magazine through some magical blend of creative listening and inspired vision. But he was a copyeditor at heart.
Shawn once edited a piece by writer Philip Hamburger. It was late, around 10 at night. They came to the end of the piece, in which Hamburger described shaking hands with Argentina's Evita Peron and finding her hand "stone cold."
Shawn, Hamburger later wrote, "became agitated."
"Stone cold," he said, "requires a hyphen."
"I became agitated. 'Put a hyphen there and you spoil the ending,' I said. 'That hyphen would be ruinous.'
"Perhaps you had better sit outside my office and cool off," he said. "I'll go on with my other work."
"I took a seat outside his office. From time to time, he would stick his head out and say, "Have you changed your mind?
"No hyphen," I replied. "Absolutely no hyphen." I was quite worked up over the hyphen.
"Sometime around two-thirty in the morning, Shawn said, wearily, "All right. No hyphen."
"But you are wrong."
(Informal discussion of when participants decided to become editors)
What I learned more than anything else from my first editing jobs was the importance of respect, of the gentle, careful, selective exercising of the power of the editor, to respect the writers, the readers and, importantly, the words themselves -- to appreciate the profound lesson that the editor's job is, most of all, to help others do their jobs, to exercise a kind of firm, thoughtful, respectful quality control in applying the awesome power that comes to the one who is last to touch the copy.
And I enjoyed that feeling: the power and fun of the editor's role.
I visit many newsrooms, and I don't have to tell you that these are troubled times. Newspapers have been on the defensive for some time -- written off as old and out of touch, no longer the hot places to work, and now facing downsizing and cutbacks and resource squeezes even as competitors, especially the electronic species, close in.
I can't predict the future any better than anyone else, but here is something on which I would bet the mortgage:
Editors will save journalism.
I don't know about formats -- whether paper will survive, whether the Internet will fatefully lure away the coming generations. But I know this:
People have a primal need for information. On the famous hierarchy, it ranks just below food, water and shelter. From the early days when cave people learned from word of mouth where the bears were and which berries would kill you, we have depended on information for survival -- and we still do. Information is power -- social, cultural, economic, political, personal power. Information is valuable -- there will always be a market for news -- current, important, useful information.
But we are, as we all know, overrun with information today. Today's consumers have access to volumes of information unimaginable just 10 years ago -- electronic storage and delivery gives us access, almost literally, to all the information in the world. And more and more is hemhorraging onto the Internet every nanosecond.
Where editors come in is obvious. Editors specialize not in information collection, not in information processing, not in information distribution, but in information assessment. It is editors who, exercising their professional judgment, can test information for all-important reliability and relevance; can efficiently select, sort, arrange and present information in the most useful, accessible and effective ways; and can serve both individual consumers and the larger interests of society by policing the integrity of the information stream.
You editors may be dwarfs on the shoulders of the general, as Max Perkins said, acting with little recognition -- but now, more than ever, in today's chaotic information age, the ability to separate good information from garbage will be a touchstone quality of successful media. And that is what editors do, from mega-decisions involving the integrity of sourcing to the last call on whether "coroner" is a title that should be capitalized or an occupational descriptor that shouldn't be. You Southerners may recall the legendary racecar driver Junior Johnson. After he gave up racing himself and became an owner, he was observed one day down working in the pit crew, and someone asked why, at his stage of life, he was still doing that kind of work, and his answer was a simple and direct: "Ain't nothing too small to do right." The copyeditor's motto.
There's nothing wrong with entertainment, with info-tainment and with our eternal desire for a little gossip, a little sensationalism, a little fun. Those desires go back to cave dwellers as well. But society has always demanded that a certain, small but critical mass of its information be demonstrably reliable and trustworthy -- and it is editors more than anyone else who perform this service, and copyeditors who put the last eye on it.
That brings me to one last Max Perkins story.
"Why don't you write yourself?" Perkins once was asked by a colleague. "I have a feeling you could write so much better than most of the people who do write." "Max just stared at me for a long time," the colleague reported, "and said, 'Because I'm an editor."
Here is what the great writer Lillian Ross once said about editors:
"What most writers need is not another writer but an editor -- someone to talk to about their work, someone capable of giving guidance and help with getting in the writers' way."
You are editors, specifically copyeditors. And that brings me to why copyeditor should be one word. As two words, copy editor means editor of copy -- a task, certainly done by copyeditors but by many others, professional and otherwise.
As one word, copyeditor is an appellation, a title, a distinctive professional job descriptor that denotes and celebrates a specific, technical role in a complex news operation.
It is a credit to be a copyeditor, it is a specialty of immense importance, and we should lay claim to it as our word, our special title, for a special and indispensable role.