Friday, October 08, 2004

The Corrections

One of the great things about being a copy editor is that you can be correcting an expert about his own specialty one minute ("No, Mr. Political Writer, it was a joint meeting, not a joint session") and committing an error that any sixth-grader could catch ("Old and Gas Hold the Reins in the Wild West") the next.

Even under the best of circumstances, there's a pretty good chance that a daily-newspaper copy desk of any significant size is going to screw something up in every edition. "Make sure everything is right, and clear, and not misleading" is a pretty challenging mandate, and daily deadlines are a bitch. Book publishers have months to get things right, and when is the last time you read an error-free book? A newspaper copy desk seldom has the luxury of spending even a full hour with a story, and sometimes we have less than no time. That wasn't hyperbole: I've received stories several minutes after I was supposed to have been finished with them.

That absurd example is a rare case, but it's quite common for a copy editor to have only five or 10 minutes to edit a lengthy article and write its headlines and photo captions. And even when we're not facing that kind of deadline pressure, the threat of facing it in the future is a stifling force. If my final deadline is 9:45 and I have only one story in front of me at 8, I can't settle in for a leisurely read, because I know that a dozen more stories are due, and any or all of them could arrive at any time.

Speed kills, no matter how easy the task. Ever try to sort your laundry a little faster than usual? A black sock will go in the white pile, guaranteed. And then there's the pressure. In a classic "Odd Couple" episode, Bobby Riggs bet Oscar Madison that he couldn't type his own name.

"Oscar Madisoy."

"Oscar Madisox."

Usually we outshine any Jack Klugman character -- grace under pressure is part of our job description -- but I've seen truth as strange as that fiction.

3 comments:

George Schmidt said...

This is my first comment ever. Couldn't help it. One of the funniest, smartest posts in a swishingly sharp blog.

Not much of a sharp comment, though, eh?

G.S.,
Drunk on the Moon

Copy editor said...

A post that reminds me of a day at work. That's great. (Too bad it is true. If only the readers knew what we go through.)

Bridey Murphy said...

Great observations. I work on a weekly, but we also have an absurdly overdesigned and frequently updated website where there are countless opportunities to make nice high-profile mistakes. The biggest screwups happen when the powers that be are yelling about "getting beat" on a story -- and those, of course, are usually the stories that lead to those "How are we going to keep this from happening again?" meetings. (Stop publishing?)