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.

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Media Futures and Pasts

Tipped by the American Press Institute‘s lively newsletter, I came across a fascinating portfolio site done by a class at NYU that is researching futures for the NYTimes. Engaging to nose around in (and fronted by an excellent video). Some things that will shock j-school old-timers (“division between advertising and editorial? why still a thing?”), but overall it’s clearly a labor of love, and a well-done one at that.

Future New York Times