All the blame and none of the glory – that’s the life of a newspaper copy editor. So why become one? Let former New York Times chief copy editor Merrill Perlman count the reasons.
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BOB GARFIELD: Behind every great story is a great and greatly underappreciated anonymous copy editor – a couple of them, actually. They work long and late hours, they fix reporters’ mistakes on deadline, they make stories more grammatically correct, easier to understand, and they're the very last set of eyes to see a story before it’s printed. But do they get bylines? No. Do they get blamed for mistakes that show up in the paper? Yes. So why [LAUGHS], why be a copy editor? Lots of reasons, says Merrill Perlman, a 25-year veteran of The New York Times copy desk. We spoke to her exactly two years ago in Miami at the annual American Copy Editor Society Conference. She described the mood of the hundreds of copy editors in that first session.
MERRILL PERLMAN: The very first session this morning it wasn't so high, because copy editors tend to be night people and we were all a little groggy. But once you get people going, they're looking around and they're saying, my God, look at all of us. We matter.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Now, at the risk of stereotyping, how would you describe a typical copy editor? What kind of people are they?
MERRILL PERLMAN: I'm not sure there is a typical copy editor. I think they share some common traits. They all share that love of language. They all share that desire to get it right. Sometimes it's an obsession to get it right, and that's not necessarily a good thing. They don't so much care about the public recognition, but they like to bitch about not having the public recognition, so they're a complaining bunch.
BOB GARFIELD: What is the most frequent mistake that you and your colleagues find in reporters' raw copy?
MERRILL PERLMAN: I'm not sure that there's one that pops right out at me. I gave a session this morning about homonym sorts of expressions that have crept into written language - like, you know, somebody says, I'm going to "hone in" on something. It's not "hone," h-o-n-e. It's h-o-m-e, for homing pigeon.
BOB GARFIELD: I've got to tell you, I still see the "hone in" mistake in major newspapers, even, it seems to me, The New York Times.
MERRILL PERLMAN: Oh, yes. Once in a while. We've had it, I think, three times in the last year, because I looked it up for this session. The wonderful thing about language is it does evolve and it is fluid. For a copy editor, you need to know your audience and you need to know what your house style is. So in some ways it's not even so much of a right or wrong thing. There was a time in the late 19th century when somehow, somewhere, someone – and I don't know the actual derivation – decided that split infinitives were a bad thing, and all the public schools started teaching that split infinitives were bad. Well, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, because it is not "boldly to go where no man has gone before." It is "to boldly go where no man has gone before." Because people feel so strongly about that, New York Times' newspaper style is, if you don't have to split it, don't aggravate people. But if you have to split it, it's okay, because it's not wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: I must say [LAUGHS], over several decades copy editors have saved my sorry ass more times than I can really count.
MERRILL PERLMAN: Thank you for saying that.
BOB GARFIELD: Literally I can't count them, because I don't remember a single episode. What I do remember is the few times that copy editors edited errors into my stories –
MERRILL PERLMAN: Yes, that's terrible.
BOB GARFIELD: - that weren't there when I submitted it. Now, that's annoying. What have you to say for yourself about that?
MERRILL PERLMAN: Um, I'm really sorry, and I'll try not to let it happen again. [BOB LAUGHS] There's sort of an unwritten credo that you do not damage somebody else's work. That no one should be surprised to read something under their own byline. So, you know, when copy editors do edit errors in, I think they probably flog themselves more than a lot of reporters will flog themselves, because that's worse. Now, the flip side of that is all the catches that copy editors make that they're never recognized for.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. There are those.
MERRILL PERLMAN: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: But I would have to say in my career, in thousands of stories, probably only seven- or eight-hundred times have you people - [VOICE TRAILS OFF]
MERRILL PERLMAN: Only seven- or eight-hundred?
[LAUGHTER] That's pretty broad!
BOB GARFIELD: Well, [LAUGHS] I'm exceptionally precise. Well, Merrill, thank you very much.
MERRILL PERLMAN: Well, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Merrill Perlman was the director of copy desks at The New York Times. Now she’s a freelance editor. We spoke to her in April of 2007.