A modest proposal

Copy editors aren't hiding out in newsrooms. They're everywhere. Let's not pretend that we're just going to do one type of editing forever. Photo by Chicago Daily News via Wikimedia Commons.

Copy editors aren’t hiding out in newsrooms. They’re everywhere. Let’s not pretend that we’re just going to do one type of editing forever. Photo by Chicago Daily News via Wikimedia Commons.

When you go to editor school (disclaimer: not an actual place), the curmudgeons in charge don’t talk much about editing in different formats for different audiences.

I suspect that’s because editors in the 20th centuries had their niches and stuck with them. Newspaper copy editors likely worked on news and feature stories their entire careers. Same with book and magazine editors. PR people probably stuck with news releases and campaigns (and three-martini lunches). Corporate communications folks? Probably ditto.

As a creature of the 21st century — not quite a snotty young millennial, but close — I have adapted by choice and by circumstance to editing in different fields and different media. In addition to ordinary news, I have edited:

  • News releases
  • Fliers
  • Brochures
  • Scripts
  • Reports
  • Magazine articles
  • Websites
  • Metadata
  • Marketing collateral
  • Proposals
  • E-books
  • Book books (Well, OK. One book. So far.)

Awesome, right? I love the variety. What I don’t love is the profound lack of mentors.

I look up to lots of editors but few who can show me, in meaningful and specific ways, how to calibrate my work for a particular audience or a different medium. As a result, I’ve gotten by on instinct, a bit of collaboration with noneditors and lots of reading. I’ve got a lot of random bits of expertise and bit of old-fashioned common sense, which means I often make choices because they look good — not because I’ve got firm ground to stand on.

My proposal: better education for the new era of copy editors. Curriculum and career-development opportunities that illustrate the similarities and differences of editing for newspapers, school boards, Fortune 500s.

It’s no accident that reporters have had better luck finding postapocalyptic work. They can easily sell themselves as subject-matter experts and people-people. They engage the community more actively and talk to everyone from CEOs to homeless people on a daily basis.

Editors’ expertise is no less valuable — just a lot less flashy. But instead of trying to reprogram the stereotypical copy-editor personality, let’s reprogram our skill set so we don’t limit our value to one industry/medium/subject. Editors are everywhere, and we really can do anything (with a bit of grumbling). Let’s think bigger. Editing isn’t one-dimensional.


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