Regular readers know I spent the last six months of my newspaper career as a copy editor, after 26 years as a reporter and columnist. The particulars of my situation aren’t interesting, but what I learned in that time was, at least to me. I learned yet again that the desk really is the very last line of defense, and Holden Caulfield’s dream about being the catcher in the rye applies, i.e., you just can’t save everyone. A few stories are going over the cliff. When it’s all over, you realize that it might not have happened if everyone further up the line, from reporter on down, had done their best job, but the last person to sign off on any random disaster was you.
You’ve read those scenes in war novels, where some medic flips out and starts trying to put the gravely wounded back together with duct tape? Or those scenes in “ER” when the soulful patient no one wanted to lose dies, and there’s one doctor who just won’t give up and keeps pumping the chest and yelling for an amp of epi and paddles! Charge to 300! Clear! And finally someone touches the doc on the shoulder and says, “It’s over. Time of death…8:17.” Some copy editors, I think, get like that doctor, that medic, in the sense that they pay too much attention to what they can do and not enough to the big picture.
What a copy editor can do — the chest they can keep pumping against all odds — is to enforce rules of style. Style is each publication’s rule book, the one that says it’s Fort Wayne, not Ft. Wayne, or Hoosiers, not Indianans. God gets a capital-H on second reference in a religious newspaper, perhaps, but not a secular one. Paul Wolfowitz is Mr. Wolfowitz on second reference in the New York Times, but not the Washington Post.
Sometimes style rules are ridiculous. The pop star Meat Loaf was, supposedly, “Mr. Loaf” on second reference in the New York Times, although Dr. Ink over at Poynter suggests that might be an urban legend. (Wait…checking…it is an urban legend. Never mind.) My very own paper adopted the spelling “Xtreme” for so-called extreme sports. And so on. But copy editors’ job performance is judged, in large part, on how well they edit according to AP and local style, and so they can be meticulous to the point of insanity.
Here’s my feeling: All rules are rubber. There’s always a case to be made for breaking one, and if the case is good, then go ahead and break it, for God’s sake. I mean, just use your noggin.
That said, it’s nice (or not nice) to know that even legends have problems with the copy desk. Even the New York Times copy desk, or especially so.
That link goes to a Free Press story from this morning, about Elmore Leonard’s serialized novel in the NYT Sunday magazine. Apparently he’s having some problems getting stuff past the editors. Not just the stuff you’d expect — profanity, which is at least understandable — but other things, too. Like, oh…
“Arkansas.” Arkansas? In newspaper style, it’s abbreviated Ark.
But what if a person is saying “Arkansas”? You still abbreviate, because it’s in the stylebook. Even if you’re writing fiction, it seems.
(Leonard’s researcher, Gregg) Sutter fought the Times’ copy editors on that one, and you can see his victory in Chapter 2. But Sutter’s still hot about it.
“They don’t realize this guy’s got a sound. Every word. Ar-kan-saw. That’s a big word for Elmore,” Sutter says. “He sweats every word.”
The rest of the story tells us a little about Sutter, who spent some time making Oldsmobiles in Lansing. That goes to show you that you don’t need a huge amount of training to edit copy, just a damn ear for the job. His comment about Leonard’s sound — and how “Ark.” doesn’t sound, to the ear, like the spelled-out “Arkansas” — marks him as more naturally talented for the job than about 75 percent of the editors I’ve worked with. And more than at least a few at the NYT, who can’t relax the rules, it seems, even for a novelist, working in the Sunday magazine.
That’s an editor who needs a vacation. Although I don’t know if it would help.
Which sort of brings me to the second part of this post, which was the weekend, when I actually met Gregg Sutter, via his girlfriend, Amy Alkon, whom I know through e-mail and mutual blog admiration. When she e-mailed and said she’d be in Detroit this weekend, and would I like to meet for a drink in Birmingham, of course I said yes.
I didn’t realize, until we met, that she and Gregg were in town to celebrate Leonard’s 80th birthday. Says the mastah: “Eighty is the new 60.” Here’s hoping he gets 20 more.
Anyway, we had a great 90 minutes or so at the Rugby Grille, in the Townsend Hotel, in Birmingham, which looks like the kingdom in “The Princess Diaries,” or just a big mall. I wanted to bring Amy a little bread-and-butter gift, and knowing her fondness for sunblocks containing mexoryl, I swooped over to Windsor to get the black-market SPF 30.
Because yes, friends, sunblock with mexoryl is not approved by the FDA. So I went to Canada, or as we call it around here, the Great White South, to score the dangerous stuff. I confessed all to the border guard coming back, who was African American and, shall we say, puzzled:
“So this is stuff that makes you darker?”
“No, paler, actually.”
He waved me through. Crazy white girl and her contraband sunscreen.
The pharmacist and store clerk and I exchanges shrugs and chuckles over the thousand absurdities of international differences in what’s available over the counter. The clerk said American mothers of colicky babies come to Windsor to buy gripe water, of all things, and Canadians go to Detroit to buy some over-the-counter pain reliever you need a script for on the other side.
Anyway, if you need any of this stuff…you know me, I’m your friend, your main boy, thick and thin. Plus reimbursement for tunnel tolls.
Connie said on October 9, 2005 at 10:48 pm
So can you still get tylenol with codeine OTC in Canada?
basset said on October 9, 2005 at 10:54 pm
gripe water? is that anything like pluto water?
mary said on October 10, 2005 at 1:54 am
It wasn’t that long ago you could get gripe water here, I think. For some reason I remember my neighbor, who was pregnant with her first at the same time I was, being advised by her pediatrician to keep some on hand. That was 16 years ago.
I guess that is a long time ago.
Anyway, go see Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I bet Kate will like it.
Mindy said on October 10, 2005 at 7:40 am
I read on another blog this summer that Canada has banned the use of the weed killer RoundUp. People were complaining but unwilling to do time for weed-free lawns without the work.
jcburns said on October 10, 2005 at 8:26 am
I need some more of that over-the-counter zyrtec (cetrezine hydrochloride)…
Pam said on October 10, 2005 at 8:59 am
I am always amazed when you tell journalism stories! But even more so that the NYT would even contemplate abbreviating Arkansas in a work of fiction! Makes it sound more like a text message if you ask me! Or the prophecy of a coming flood…
mary said on October 10, 2005 at 11:44 am
I googled Gripe Water, and it’s available all over the place. Maybe they stopped putting alchohol in it, since it used to be a bit boozy. A drunk baby doesn’t gripe.
Mark said on October 10, 2005 at 11:51 am
I don’t have the specific cite, but in the late 80s I remember a New York Times story about the band U2 that referred to the lead singer on first reference as “Bono Vox” and on subsequent references as “Mr. Vox.” That’s how I learned that Mr. Paul Hewson, known far and wide simply as “Bono” got that moniker from a nickname based on the Latin for “Good Voice.”
Nance said on October 10, 2005 at 12:57 pm
That’s nothin’. A copy editor at the N-S changed his name to “Sonny Bono,” after the Live Aid concerts. He’d never heard of this U2 outfit, you see.
I know what you mean about gripe water. It seems to be available all over the place, but I note there’s an “FDA-approved” modifier on lots of the brands, so maybe there was some change in the formulation. If only I were able to talk to every mother of a colicky baby, I’d tell them the truth: Screw the gripe water. Get some firewater, and take regular dosages as needed. In six to 12 weeks, your problem will resolve itself.
mary said on October 10, 2005 at 1:33 pm
My younger son was colicky, and there are no words to describe the stress and craziness of that stage. I found he was somewhat better if I carried him around in one of those sling thingies all day.
One does see the true colors of one’s spouse in that situation, let me tell you. My ex’s pool and golf skills improved markedly during that phase.
Carolyn said on October 10, 2005 at 2:42 pm
Enjoyed the Free Press piece. Went to the NY Times site to check out the Leonard project. Saw this on the first installment (and I point this out because I am a copy editor at heart):
The Sunday Serial, a work of fiction that begins with Chapter 1 today on Page 46 of The Times Magazine, refers imprecisely to a military designation received by the main character, Carl Webster, during World War II. It is an honorable discharge from the Navy, not an honorary discharge.
Nance said on October 10, 2005 at 2:58 pm
Someone must have published a book of these things. The other day they corrected a reference, in a story about events in 1972, to the U.S. Postal Service. Before some-date-I-forget, the correction stated, that agency was known as the U.S. Post Office.
mary said on October 10, 2005 at 3:38 pm
Imagine the person who pointed out that detail about the Post Office.
Laura said on October 10, 2005 at 4:43 pm
Reminds me of the joke:
Is anal retentive hyphenated?
deb said on October 10, 2005 at 5:41 pm
one of the more tedious copy-editing choice at my workplace is vetting word-search puzzles to make sure the computer program didn’t randomly throw in something naughty. (like the time it included “satan,” which got into print.)
so yesterday i tested new puzzle software. my favorite feature: you can make a list of all the dirty words you DON’T want in the grid. i am the puzzle master, so it’s up to me to make the list. i can’t WAIT.
deb said on October 10, 2005 at 5:42 pm
chores, chores, not choice! augh. they’ll take away my blue pencil for that one.
Linkmeister said on October 10, 2005 at 6:18 pm
Deb, you from Brooklyn? As I recall, one of the Dodgers was nicknamed “The People’s Cherce.” 😉
basset said on October 10, 2005 at 9:33 pm
isn’t that how the Japanese address symptoms of venereal disease?
colleen said on October 10, 2005 at 10:43 pm
RE: the person pointing out the post office error…must have been a public radio listener who didn’t hear anything mispronounced that day and thus moved on to the newspaper to get his or her “I’m smarter than yoooouuuu” jollies for the day.
Mary O said on October 13, 2005 at 11:24 am
Gripe Water is wonderful. At the urging of our Jamaican child care provider (I hate the term nanny) I went to a Caribbean market nearby to find it when one of our newborn twins was colicky. It works wonders. I highly recommend it. Plus, you get the benefit of going to a Caribbean market and finding all sorts of other wonderful things there, like pear soda. Ahhhhh.
Lex said on October 14, 2005 at 3:46 pm
My mother-in-law used to say, “You know, a little bourbon in a bottle never hurt a baby.”
The kids are now 7 and 4, but we still don’t let her babysit unless it’s an emergency.