What do copy editors dream of?

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post, and part of the lag is because it was hard to choose one thing to focus on — a good problem to have, I suppose. My life has been uncharacteristically exciting, what with driving across two-thirds of the country, starting a new internship and adjusting to life in a new and really, really big city.

Probably the coolest moment of my journey so far, though, was when my new roommate took my friends and me to see the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, right by the Santa Monica Pier. After driving 3,000+ miles west, this was it: There was nowhere left to go.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

“Go west, young (wo)man.”

So, now that I’ve spent eight days hard at work at the L.A. Times, you — my dear friends, family and accidental visitors to my website — might be wondering what exactly I’m doing there. Most people are familiar with the job of a reporter, first because it’s often portrayed in movies and TV shows, and second because reporters produce tangible pieces of work with their names on it. But the job of a copy editor is less glamorous by Hollywood’s standards and usually anonymous in the final product, so it’s harder to understand intuitively.

To complicate things further, the role of a copy editor differs at every news organization, depending on its size, philosophy and budget constraints. What I do at the L.A. Times is not what I did as copy chief of Buzz Magazine. Just giving you a heads up.

OK, got it. So what’s a “copy editor”?

Well, this may seem rather obvious, copy refers to text, and we edit it. We make sure things aren’t confusing to the average reader. We check spelling and grammar. We do the math in obituaries (born in 1924, died in 2013…he was how old?). Sometimes, we take out things that are offensive or libelous — as my editor pointed out to me recently, you can’t say a man murdered his ex-wife in a headline until he has been convicted; otherwise, the “murderer” could sue the paper. Now I know, right?

We have an enormous, and sometimes finicky, style book that we follow. The casual reader might not notice, but the way we spell or refer to, for example, the California Institute of Technology is the same in every story (it’s always “Caltech”). When you multiply that example by a few thousand, it makes a difference: From story to story, there’s a sense of consistency that sets the tone for the entire paper.

At the L.A. Times, we also write headlines. This is my favorite part — I get to be a micro-writer. Copy editors write the headlines, subheadlines and picture captions for online stories like this one I edited. For the print version, we do the same, except we have to fill a set amount of space. Headline writing is extremely nuanced and hard, but when you think of a great headline that fits the space perfectly, it is one of the most fulfilling feelings in the world.

A headline of mine

One of the first headlines and subheads I wrote that did not get changed by my superior editor. That means I’m getting better!

But on a broader level, we defend the trustworthiness of the paper. What newspapers have going for them, even more than distributing news, is their credibility. You don’t need a paper to get news anymore, of course. But with so much sensationalized and incorrect information out there, sometimes reading the news means weeding through tons of garbage — or falling for the garbage. With newspapers, the idea is that you can always trust that what they’re saying is essentially true.

That’s the goal, at least. Copy editors can’t make the writers give their sources a rosy portrayal in the story or even guarantee that they quoted their sources correctly (which is a big frustration to people quoted in stories). But for most other things, we are the last line of defense against breaches on credibility.

A completely error-free paper is the dream. The reality is that my mom will never stop finding errors in the New York Times, which she enjoys pointing out to me. Still, without copy editors, there would be a whole lot more questionable, confusing and downright incorrect things floating around out there.

If you have any questions about my posts, please feel free to comment below! I will do my best to respond.

2 thoughts on “What do copy editors dream of?”

  1. Does a copy editor also do fact checking? You talk about credibility at the end, how does the paper check for credibility?

    1. Yeah, we do as much as we can. A lot of times it’s just making sure names of associations and easily verifiable people are spelled correctly. With population numbers, I check the census; with movie roles, I check IMDB, etc. Sometimes it’s a matter more of accuracy rather than truth – for example, a story I edited started out by talking about the origins of a certain neighborhood, but in that section of the story it mentioned an event that didn’t take place until years later. I called the writer to make sure I was understanding it correctly and then moved the mention to a section where it wouldn’t be misleading.

      The writers have a lot of autonomy here, which I appreciate, so the copy editors have to call them if there are big changes, unanswered questions or missing facts. I’ve asked writers before, “Are you sure this fact is correct?” on something that I can’t verify independently, because I want them to take one more look and make sure they’re willing to put their name – and their reputation – by it.

      Credibility is basically a news-y word for the reputation of the paper. We try to ensure the paper keeps its credibility at the end of each news cycle by minimizing errors, confusion and unintended biases. A lot of people don’t care – they get their news from other sources and it suits them just fine. But that’s kind of the newspaper’s niche, in my opinion.

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