Are copy editors necessary?

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Still catching up from various travels and other family events, I noticed I hadn't gotten around to linking my current Urban Tulsa Weekly column or the one from last week.

Last week's column dealt with specifics of the proposed $277 million county sales tax increase to fund low-water dams and other enhancements along the Arkansas River, in particular, how the proposed plan deviates from the official Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan.

But I had a couple of other matters to deal with before I jumped into the river. Faithful readers will recall that I was quick to distance myself from the text that was placed over my July 4 column. As soon as I could, I posted a comment on the article itself and here on this blog:

I want to remind readers that I do not write the headlines or [subheadlines] for my columns, and I do not agree with the harsh, sarcastic tone of the [subheadline] written for this column. I am grateful for the willingness of George Kaiser and other Tulsa philanthropists to contribute to the well-being of this city, and my suggestion that direct investment may be the best way to make the river the kind of place Tulsans want to enjoy is a suggestion made in earnest.

That wasn't the only problem I had with how my writing in that issue was edited: The beginning of my response to a letter to the editor about an earlier column was changed, setting a more pompous and pugnacious tone than I had intended. Again, I noted the differences between what I wrote and what was published in a comment on the paper's website and here at BatesLine.

To make sure that those who only see the column in print were aware of all this, I addressed both concerns in the July 11 column. When the paper came out, I had to laugh when I saw the headline:

Headlines Are Attention-Getting Devices
Otherwise, scholarly, well-researched opinion pieces might go unnoticed

Touché. The anonymous copy editor who wrote that headline is absolutely right.

A reader here asked, "Is there some journalistic justification for having an editor put words in the mouth of the columnist? I'd think that columnists, over the years (decades) would have protested loudly enough to end such a practice."

I've known of writers flying off the handle, even quitting, over headlines or edits to their pieces. I can't say I was happy when I saw how my work was edited that week, but having had a friend who was a copy editor gave me some perspective.

I met blogger Dawn Eden during my trip to the 2004 Republican National Convention, when she was a copy editor for the New York Post. In fact, that was the week she learned of winning a state Associated Press award for the headline "HURT IN LINE OF DOODY," which graced a story about a city employee injured by an exploding toilet.

Meeting Dawn put a face and a personality behind the clever, punny headlines for which New York City tabloids are renowned. I learned that copy editing is more than fixing typos; it also involves framing a story so that the newspaper reader will notice it and read it. The ability to concoct an eye-catching headline on deadline is a gift that not many writers have.

I remember, too, the saga of the following January, just before her visit to Oklahoma, when an edit Dawn made to a story about in-vitro fertilization enraged the reporter, who, despite Dawn's apologies, set out to get Dawn fired, not so much for the edit as for the staunchly pro-life content of her personal blog.

While I think the writer's reaction and the Post publisher's handling of Dawn's situation exceeded reasonable disciplinary action and entered the realm of religious persecution, I can now better empathize with the writer. When words appear under my byline, they are identified with me, and they speak for me, whether I wrote them or not. I don't appreciate having my name associated with opinions or attitudes I don't share. An attention-getting headline or a punched-up lede may draw a reader in to see what I have to say, but if it goes too far, a reader may conclude immediately that I'm an arrogant jerk with nothing to say worth reading and turn the page.

(I am an arrogant jerk, but I'd prefer to let my own words convict me on that charge.)

One of the lovely things about a blog is that everything here (except for the comments) is mine -- my words, my opinions. Also, my factual errors (like calling a subheadline a "tagline"), my misspellings, my inconsistent application of style rules, my homely layout, and my boring headlines. For better or worse, there's no editor to get in the way.

But when you're assembling the work of multiple contributors into a single publication, someone has to layout the pages, put the ads in place, write headlines, subheadlines, pullquotes, and captions, and turn those diverse contributions into an attractive and cohesive package.

I appreciate what copy editors do. I'm grateful when they fix my typos, add transitional sentences when I lurch too quickly from one idea to another, and make me look smarter, Charlotte's Web style, by putting brilliant headlines over my words. And when they get carried away, I'll handle it as I did this time -- let the readers know of the discrepancy and mend fences with the individuals who might have been offended by what someone else wrote under my name.

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J Thomas said:

As always, fair and level-headed. Again, thank you for all you do. Regards......

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 23, 2007 10:25 PM.

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