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What Exactly Is a Copy Editor?
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When the 'Last Line of Defense' Failed

From The Washington Post, April 25, 1978

By Robert H. Williams

S
everal weeks ago Charles Seib, The Washington Post's ombudsman, had occasion to mention what for years I had thought of as Williams's Law: If you read a newspaper article on a subject about which you know something, you will find the article to be wrong. A corollary is that, in the business of editing for publication, sometimes less is more, and vice versa.

Now, it should be noted that in The Post's new style book the copy desk is referred to, quite properly, as the newspaper's "last line of defense." Just what a copy editor does seems to puzzle many reporters and, from time to time, the very management of a newspaper. But while the duties of the copy editor may be hard to define, it has been found that newspapers do not function very well, if at all, without them. A friend, visiting in Washington several years ago, asked me what it is, exactly, I do for a living, and when I told him my duty was to change "that" to "which" and "which" to "that" wherever those words appear, he looked at me as if I were quite mad, which may be the case after 20 years of trying to get printers to put in the fourth dot when an ellipsis ends a sentence.

(It is also my duty to see that reporters never get to write a paragraph as long as the preceding one.)

At any rate, the psychology of the copy editor is not unlike that of pro football linemen: half paranoid, half manic-depressive, worn down from too many hours in the trenches, beset by Monday morning quarterbacks and afraid to see the game films. Our game films are shown every morning, when The Post appears, and that includes days off and vacations, since copy editors handle much advance material for the "intype" list, which is apt to appear at any time.

A further word, in passing, on the psychopathology of copy editors: Their mistakes are highly visible, and certainly no less frequent than those of other people, such as doctors, who can bury theirs. But after a few years in the trenches, even the young ones, the bright ones with the calling, turn the slightest shade of gray; begin using scissors to cut out articles (instead of ripping them out along a straight-edge); put their initials on the edges of their dictionaries and Congressional Directories; line up their pencils with the points all going the same way and in descending order of length; look down a lot; wear old clothes (it is a dirty job) or the same suit for years and years, smell of pencils; flaunt chafed, blackened elbows; and exist on a diet of gallows humor, Slim Jims, Twinkees, cigarettes, Carmel Nips, coffee, Valium, booze and Hygroton, a particularly effective drug that keeps blood pressure somewhere in the viable zone.

The point of all this is to try to cope with the insane rage readers develop when they find mistakes in the newspaper. Not to make alibis or explanations, but to cope. One of the senior editors of this newspaper once asked me, in not so gentle terms, why in God's name I'd written a headline calling the governor of Michigan the governor of Ohio, and my response was, "Harry, I'd be telling you a lie if I said I did it on purpose," which is what it's all about. You see, nobody does these things on purpose, just as, in the federal bureaucracy, nobody sets out to make sure you don't get your Social Security check on time.

But back to the Williams's Law corollary: Less editing can be more.

Enough time (five months) has elapsed without the wrath of the gods descending upon me so that I can safely tell the story behind the story of Robert Bear, possibly in a constructive manner.

Robert Bear, you may recall, was the Carlisle, Pa., member of a fundamentalist religious sect. He had been "shunned" by his wife and six children for five years, and his life had virtually been ruined because, under church doctrine, nobody would have anything to do with him.

The story came my way, and I read it through, and then read it through again, and it occurred to me that a major question, one likely to be asked by many readers, remained unanswered: did that shunning go so far as to keep Mrs. Bear out of her husband's bed?

Copy editors, the last line of defense, are not supposed to make substantive changes without conferring with an originating editor or the reporter or both, and at any rate I did not have the answer. So I returned to the editor who had assigned the story and asked if he didn't agree that the question should be answered in the story. He replied that the reporter, a stringer, had included that answer to that question (which was that Mrs. Bear was now a wife in name only) but that he, the editor, had taken it out because he felt it to be irrelevant. I argued briefly, the way things are done in an overly democratic society, that it should be included, and he shrugged and said that if it would make me feel any better go ahead and put it back in. So, with a few strokes of my pencil, I did.

Around midnight I went home, mildly congratulating myself for having, well, opened up a nice hole off tackle. I had a drink, leafed through The Star, and went to bed. At around 5 a.m., an hour before the game films were to be delivered to my front door, and the front doors of three quarters of a million others--and long after the presses had hissed to a halt--I sat bolt upright in bed and realized the exact words I had penciled into that story:

Even his wife will not sleep with him.

It was going to be a long day.


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