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Revenge of the Copy Editor

copyedit07232010a.jpgTo the extent that it ever can be, copy editing is on the rise this week. The Awl on Wednesday posted Lori Fradkin‘s long, personal testimonial to the travails of the professional grammarian, and then yesterday The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal wrote a blog post speculating on the discipline’s eventual return to prominence.

All of this follows a Sunday Washington Post column by Gene Weingarten that laments the decline of the copy editor in the age of digital media. The New York TimesDavid Carr did some similar fretting a couple months ago.

Paul Ford put forth a forceful point on the issue, arguing that editorial discipline serves an incredibly broad purpose:

I recently left zineland and did a bunch of freelance work and hooboy do people not know how to ship. A three-year project that yielded only 90-second page load; or $1.5 million down the drain with only a few microsites to show. And I’ve started to find myself going, God, these projects need editors. Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.

All this nostalgia for proper usage does little to dispel the grim economics of the situation. The fruits of good copy editing are difficult to quantify.


Fradkin writes:

Another downside of the job is that only your mistakes are apparent. The catches are basically invisible. No one will look at an edited article and think, I am certain that, once upon a time, there was a double quote where there should have been a single, and a wise person fixed the issue for my benefit. But if you let a “their” slip through in the place of a “there,” you are a complete moron.

Without debating the quality assurance – related merits of dedicated style police, we can say that the forces governing the current state of media — limited budgets and the rapid-fire demands of Internet publishing — continue to work against the droves of unthanked and underappreciated guardians of syntactical propriety. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that the copy editing discipline is dormant rather than extinct.

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