Recently, the New York Times notified their editorial staff that they were going to lay off or buy out half of them. So the editorial staff published an open letter to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn. In it, they describe some of what we editors actually do.
In fact, we feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.
But almost nobody knows what we do, in part because we work behind the scenes. No one but the author sees the “before” product, only the final result. So it’s tempting to envision us as joyless pedants who do nothing but run spellcheck and mock people for putting commas in the wrong places. To hear people tell it, a computer could do our jobs in five minutes.
But think of other invisible professionals. Think of the lighting crew in a movie. If they do a terrible job, we miss Rick Blaine’s nod, and Ilsa Lund is completely in shadow when we are meant to see the powerful expressions on her face while Victor Laszlo sings La Marseillaise. Yes, bad lighting could have ruined Casablanca. Well, we’re the lighting crew for your manuscript.
The reporters at the New York Times are well aware of the value of editors. Which is why they wrote on behalf of their editors and requested that management reconsider:
Like nearly everyone we know in the newsroom, we believe that the plan to eliminate dozens of editing jobs and do away with the copy desks is ill-conceived and unwise, and will damage the quality of our product. It will make us sloppier, more error-prone. It will undermine the reputation that generations have worked to build and maintain, the reputation that keeps readers coming back. You are reducing the number of people doing the work of editing, which would be harmful enough in itself. But you plan to take work away from people who do it well, and give it to people who have not developed the same skills, and who are already over-burdened.
It’s not just editors for the New York Times who perform these tasks. In my last entry, toward the bottom, I give a list of some of the services that I provide.
- Where necessary for narrative clarity and quality, move paragraphs or sections from one place to another.
- Delete sections that are repetitive or detract from the narrative, or flag such sections that, in editor’s judgment, should be deleted
- Determine the language and reading level appropriate for the intended audience and medium, and edit to establish or maintain that language and level.
- Establish or maintain a consistent tone, style, and authorial voice or level of formality appropriate for the intended audience and medium.
- Flag sentences or paragraphs that require further development by author for effective narrative quality and flow.
- Reorder sentences within a paragraph where necessary to ensure that the paragraph has a clear and coherent focus.
- Adjust the length and structure of paragraphs to ensure variety or consistency, as appropriate to the audience and medium.
- Ensure that transitions between sentences and between paragraphs are smooth and support the coherent development of the text as a whole.
- Only where necessary, rewrite sentences, paragraphs, and passages to resolve ambiguities, ensure logical connections, and clarify the author’s meaning or intention, in harmony with the style of the material. Does not include research or writing original material.
- Render jargon into plain language while leaving terms of art intact.
- Eliminate wordiness.
- Ensure correctness and consistency of spelling, mechanics, usage, and punctuation.
- Fact-check existing manuscript or do research to permit author to develop or expand existing manuscripts.
- Provide original writing to expand existing manuscript or ghostwrite document as a whole.
- Ensure references are formatted pursuant to the Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition. Some elements may be formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition, forthcoming in September 2017, if known.
As a practical matter, what does this look like? Well, I edit academic work as well as fiction and memoirs/autobiographies. In addition to correcting spelling, mechanics, grammar, and punctuation, I have recently done the following:
- found and corrected a significant factual error, changed an unintentional double entendre, and reworded jargon into plain language.
- flagged potentially defamatory content, suggesting that the author either provide documentation in the text or delete it.
- found an incomplete reference and 404 Not Found error. Fixed both.
- suggested rewording dialogue inconsistent with character’s age and education level. Because a fifteen-year-old boy shouldn’t talk like the chief justice of United States Supreme Court.
- in a medical journal article, flagged a dosage for author so that the author could verify whether the correct dose was in mcg or mg, because the text and the table didn’t agree.
- in a police procedural, pointed out that it was a Terry stop, which was a seizure, not a formal arrest-which in turn meant that Miranda warnings were not required and so the evidence would not have been suppressed, the detective therefore hadn’t made a terrible mistake, the killer would not have gone free. The failure of the detective to read Miranda warnings to the murderer was the premise for half the book.
- in a law review article, fixed suggested contract terms because they were ambiguous. Ambiguity in contracts results in disputes, delays, and litigation (which is expensive even if you win). And ambiguity in contracts is construed against the drafter without more.
We protect you against crash blossoms. We make sure that you don’t use a term in your work that your target audience might miss. If you are writing a YA book, you probably don’t want to talk about a dog who looks like Flub-a-Dub.
So the editors and reporters of the New York Times were correctly alarmed. It’s said that some people don’t care whether prose is sloppy, unreadable, opaque, confusing, or unintentionally funny, or whether the news article gets the age of the victim wrong, puts a city in the wrong country, misspells the name of the politician, attributes the quotation to the wrong person, or superimposes a photograph of a serial killer over an advertisement for kitchen knives. Today, I would argue, we need clarity and truth more than ever. For that, you need us.
We need to be able to kick you under the table when your work is unintentionally obscene.  The first crash blossom was the ambiguous headline “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.”