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On Copy Editing

Sunday, August 24, 2008 12:00 AM

Ombudsman Deborah Howell recently sent an all-newsroom e-mail asking Post staffers what they thought about copy editing and its worth at the paper. The following reply came from Metro copy editor Jeff Baron. Howell says, "It was such a good and succinct description of how copy editors see their work that I thought it was worth sharing with readers."

We all need editors. When we write, we might know what we mean to say, and we become blind to the looseness in our language and the gaps in our facts. Friends will ignore slips in e-mails, but newspaper readers should be able to expect a higher standard.

There's more involved than running a spell check. The copy editor needs to be a critical reader: Is the story missing necessary background or other information? Is it unfair? Is it libelous? Have crucial questions gone unasked? When the answer is yes, the copy editor is on the phone with the reporter or researching on the Internet to make things right, and to do it on deadline.

We have to be alert to ambiguities in the writing; if even five in a hundred readers are misled or baffled by the phrasing of a sentence, we have failed. Their lives are tough enough, and understanding a newspaper article shouldn't be hard work. We have to be the reader's advocates, straightening out twisted syntax (no matter that it's correct) when it does not serve the reader. We guard against cliches and jargon: When a police reporter mentions "an adult female," we turn her back into "a woman." We watch out for the badly strained figure of speech, that reference to "the inquiring eyes of Congress's investigative arm" that sounded right to the writer but would give a literal-minded reader nightmares.

We check the facts, to the extent we can. No obituary subject ever worked for the Institute for Defense Analysis -- it's the Institute for Defense Analyses.

And we are the defenders of proper grammar, usage, spelling and what publications call style: when to capitalize, when to use numerals or spell out the numbers, etc. Copy editors might be the only people who can discuss, cheerfully and seriously and on their own time, when to hyphenate a compound adjective. Normal people, I have found, deeply do not care.

Some mistakes jump out: I love finding the comically wrong homonyms, the core for corps, the pour for pore, the ordinance for ordnance. Some are more subtle: It's easy to miss errors in quotations because our training tells us to leave quotations alone, but if the reporter has left out or misinterpreted a word or two, it's the copy editor's job to notice and ask.

I consider my workday worthwhile if I've made one especially good catch or written one sterling headline.

Yes, let's not forget, we're the ones who write the headlines. The best of them draw the reader and capture the essence of the article. They can be lyrical or hard-hitting, as appropriate, but they have to make sense while fitting the space constraints laid down by our dear but slightly sadistic page designers. The headlines satisfy our love of word games, allowing us to play with the rhythm and the look of the language. We spend far more time editing the articles, but headlines give us more latitude, more of a chance to be creative. In sports terms, the editing is the dependable defense that wins games, but it's the best headlines that make the highlight reel.

We do this work, generally, at night, with no stopping for holidays or weekends. We do not have social lives. If we have families, we do not see them much. We get precious little personal glory: The work is strictly anonymous. And we don't get much in the way of money, either: A chart just released by our union shows that The Post's copy editors earn noticeably less than its reporters, photographers, page designers and graphic artists.

We have the satisfaction of helping turn rushed prose into a great newspaper. We have the respect of the superb reporters whose butts we sometimes save. And as The Post and other newspapers make do with fewer of us, putting fewer pairs of eyes on each column of type, I'm afraid readers will notice us by the mistakes we no longer keep out of print.

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