Critical Words

Tom Rachman reviewing A World Without Whom : The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age by Emmy J. Favilla

From “List of proof-marks, corrected proof-sheets and suggestions in regard to proofreading” by A.M. Smith. As cryptic as cuneiform to a modern writer?

As if to immunize herself against criticism, [Favilla] begins by announcing her paucity of qualifications; she is neither a lexicographer nor an expert in linguistics. Previously, she worked at Teen Vogue. “I am constantly looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”, she says. But despite the tone of chirpy self-satire, what follows is a small revolution. “Today everyone is a writer – a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer”, she says. “There’s no hiding our collective incompetence anymore.” Unlike the language scolds of yore, Favilla embraces the new ways, punctuating her writing with emoji, inserting screen-grabs of instant messages, using texting shortcuts such as “amirite?” Hers is a rule book with fewer rules than orders to ignore them. Humans are gushing out words at such a pace, they can’t be expected to bother with grammar, she says. More important is to be entertaining, on trend, popular (neatly matching the corporate goals of BuzzFeed). “It’s often more personal and more plain-languagey, and so it resonates immediately and more widely.”

Rachman, a reporter turned novelist, wrote this for the TLS, which still has copy-editors (although it is a less pristine publication than it was when I first started reading it as a library worker 30 years ago).  Favilla  started as the copy editor for Buzz Feed (singular verb on purpose). They may now have a few more. Honestly, a bit hard to tell.

The review also covers Harold Evans latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why writing well matters,  one of many to shelve in the bookstore section labeled “grumpy state of the language jeremiads.”  Evans, retired editor of The Times of London, is of course a grandee of old school journalism (imagine starting your career when writing for a newspaper meant manual typewriters, hot lead type, and Gregg shorthand for interviews). He is not sanguine about the state of the English language.

Rachman summarizing Evans’ case,

[Evans is] correct to diagnose trouble. Public opinion is frighteningly confused today, with many citizens opposing what they support. They’re for health care, but against the policy providing it. Bewilderment also warps discussion of gun control and Brexit and global warming, leaving those without scruples to spin, while earnest news sources mount their factual cases – and are snubbed. Manipulative language has been around as long as public debate. But today’s lies linger because the internet has scuttled credibility, placing heaps of alluring junk beside small piles of dry honesty.

I think he’s right, but I have a harder time believing it can change, or hasn’t always been latent in news biz. Freedom of the press, as William Randolph Hearst is rumored to have put it, belongs to those who have one. Now everybody does.


Igor Levit and Copy Editors

A couple of things tipped by the NYTimes:

First, pianist Igor Levit’s encore from the first night of the BBC Proms a few days ago:

This is the Ode to Joy, aka the Official Anthem of the European Union, in an arrangement by Franz Liszt. A Russian-German pianist, playing an iconic piece of music by greatest composer in the classical canon, as arranged by perhaps the most cosmopolitan pan-European of composers. Not only a beautiful performance (capping a dazzling take on  Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor) but in London, in July 2017, for a worldwide audience: making an eloquent vote for unity rather than division during fractious times.


On a different note, the Times also has a poignant take on the layoff (and restructuring) of copy editing at “The Grey Lady.”  (This may be behind a paywall–sorry.)



If you don’t work in the scribbling trade or hang with people who do, you may not be aware of copyediting, its storied past, and uncertain future. As the Times piece points out, it is the immune system of any serious publication. Copy readers correct spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and vastly improve writing, often one tiny fix at a time: changes that tighten, clarify, and smooth out prose. They also impose ‘house style’ on a publication, which though derided and often annoying to writers (the diaereses in “reëlect” and “coöperate” that The New Yorker insists on must vex to all concerned), still matters. Style guides save time, e.g,, no ad hoc decision on the serial comma necessary. And they regularize content, be it in print or online and this helps readers, humans or algorithms, parse sentences.

Copyediting is an odd skill (and I certainly can’t do it). You have to read both for content understanding, which provides the context for the piece of writing, but also attend assiduously to the surface level in order to catch those mechanical issues. For a general interest newspaper, you also have to have a sixth sense about working with up wildly varying content. (When my mother was in journalism school in the 1940s, the professors handed out the copy-editing test then in use at the Times. It was a complicated story about auto-racing, and nobody, including my mother who had a sharp pencil, did very well.)

Copyreaders also write headlines and captions for photos (cutlines), an art in itself, and a task that is complicated now that print, web, and social media headlines have to be created. It would seem an odd moment to reduce this workforce, but the challenges papers are up against are mighty.

One unremarked benefit of copy editing, at least in my case, is the education in writing that a really good line editor/copy editor can provide. Although I have had lots of experience in writing and editing in most of my jobs, it was when I worked on book-length manuscripts for websites (ironically for a TV station) and had professional editors from the publishing world scrub my own and other writers’ copy–in those far off days with red ink on manuscript–that I really figured out how to clean up prose. (I was in my late 30s!)  An editorial assistant and I worked through this mark up, discussing each change as we finished the website. These editors fixed the mechanical errors, but more importantly pressed hard on the writing itself, flagging and fixing anything fusty, flabby, or unfocused, and pointing out where the rhythm, sense, or precision was lacking. Their reworks of things were eye-opening, even when I took issue with them.

There is nothing like this for improving your own prose (and your ability to edit others’ work). It wasn’t part of my writing education, now some years back, and I wonder if it is any more frequent today.  (The revered writing teacher Don Murray, a former Boston Globe writer and UHN prof, recommended something very similar in his writing workshops and it’s possible that it is more common.)  As Murray points out, writing is a process, editing and revising being key. And also is much more of a team sport than would seem apparent from high school and college assignments. The grim private penance of slogging through a 500 word theme or term paper, is, for me at least, completely different from writing for a sharp-eyed editor who is out to improve your writing; things go so much better when you are engaged in a process together, and working towards an effective draft.

I’m sure the Times of all places is not turning its back on editing, but still, there is something less than reassuring about the prestige press going public about not needing so many of those squirrelly, superb, and effective people who read copy.