photo: Earl Wilson/The New York Times
The Copy Desk: The End of the Gauntlet (or Is It ‘Gantlet’?)
When a copy editor gets to work on an article for The Times, it doesn’t matter what section its for, the guiding principal is the same one new doctors embrace when they take the Hipocratic Oath: First do no harm.
If I were an editor looking at the opening sentence of this piece, though, I might be tempted to harm my head by banging it a few times on the desk. Let’s start with the glaring factual mistake: “First do no harm” is nowhere to be found in the oath. The ancient Greek physician may have written those words, or something like them, but he did not put them in the oath, despite what is commonly believed.
And while we’re at it, that “its” should be “it’s.” That “principal” should be “principle.” And it should be “Hippocratic,” with two “Ps.” And isn’t the whole thing a little long? And maybe a cliché? And – sorry to be a stickler – but isn’t the reference to “ancient Greek physician” in the second paragraph an example of what The New York Times stylebook frowns on as indirection (“sidling into facts as if the reader already knew them”)?
At this point, the writer may also be banging his head on the desk. Wait — I am the writer. Ouch!
Fortunately, most of the stories that have come across my desk in my 15 years at The Times are in a lot better shape than that.
Copy editors are basically one of the last lines of defense before articles are posted on the web or put in the paper. We try to make sure that a story is factually accurate, balanced and grammatical. We’re also responsible for making sure it complies with The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. And we write headlines and captions.
By the time an article gets to us, it has usually been read by the assigning desk, known here as the backfield. A reporter may have been asked to rewrite some or all of it. And if it is a high-profile article, it has probably been read by any number of other editors up and down the masthead — all of whom are happy to share their own ideas.
At this point, it would be easy to understand if a writer preferred the company of a bartender to that of yet another editor. Moreover, as enforcers of Times style, which was recently eased but could hardly be considered permissive, copy editors often hear themselves saying “no” – as in: “You’re right. That’s the best line in the story. But, no, you can’t say that.”
In fact, though, relations between reporters and copy editors are surprisingly amicable. Copy editors are primarily advocates for the reader, but that does not mean we cannot be advocates for the reporters, too.
Times reporters are among the best in their field, but they are often reporting and writing under tremendous pressure, in war zones, at disaster scenes and, at the risk of being redundant, in Washington. It’s really easy to get a name wrong, to mess up a date or to reach for a word in the heat of the moment and, as Mark Twain once put it, end up with its “second cousin.” And sometimes, reporters become so immersed in a subject that they assume that the meaning of what they have written is obvious, even if it may not be to someone who is new to it.
Jim Rutenberg, a longtime reporter here, recalls covering a plane crash when he was at The Daily News. “I had a diver with the bends going into a ‘hyperbolic’ chamber, a Freudian slip relating to the paper, I guess,” he says. “A copy editor saved me from myself.” Tabloids like The News are free, of course, to be hyperbolic. That diver needed something hyperbaric.
Jim points to another role played by copy editors. “I was also banned by the copy desk there from doing math,” he says. “ ‘A reporter with a calculator is like a kid with a loaded gun,’ I was told.”
Foreign languages can also be a pitfall. Maggie Astor, a fellow copy editor, once worked an article about saving abandoned dogs in Puerto Rico. The story, she says, “mentioned an organization called Manos por Patos, which is Spanish for Hands for Ducks. Well, that can’t be right, I thought. Sure enough, it was Manos por Patas, or Hands for Paws. What a difference a letter makes.”
Hey, no one enjoys being copy-edited. But we all need it. Before I turned this in, I had two colleagues look it over – and now what I once thought were my best lines are gone. And, at the urging of a senior editor, I will not tell you about one of the funniest mistakes we let slip through. Let’s just say it involves reversed letters, a giant piece of scientific equipment and something that sounds as if it could be the title of an X-rated film.
And now the piece is going to the copy desk! Come on, guys: Be gentle with me. Please?