Copy editors’ job description is unusual in that the whole point of the profession is to deliver perfection. But no item of text that has ever gone to print could be called perfect. Something could always be improved—an error could have been cleaned up, an infelicitous phrasing could have been avoided, the perfect word could have been substituted for one that merely gets the job done.

There are two reasons that copy editors cannot deliver perfection, much as we strive to: 1. We are human, and 2. We have deadlines. So for an imperfect world, there’s triage.

I often tell people at parties who haven’t heard of my job that I fix spelling and punctuation, but actually those concerns are shockingly far down on my list of priorities, which looks something like this:

  1. Do not introduce any errors. (This is so far ahead of all the others in importance that I’m tempted to list it 10 times and assign all other tasks numbers starting with 11.)
  2. Correct any factual errors I can find.
  3. Make sure everything in headlines and all other large text is accurate and spelled correctly.
  4. Make sure nothing in headlines or other large text sounds dirty (unless it’s supposed to).
  5. Make sure everything in large text clearly communicates the point of the story and will draw the reader in.
  6. Clarify any ambiguous text.
  7. Smooth out any unreadably awkward text (garden-path sentences, unclear antecedents and so on.)
  8. Fix spelling and homophone errors.
  9. Fix usage errors such as dangling modifiers.
  10. Keep text in compliance with style guides.
  11. Commas and junk.

Understand, of course, that I never knowingly let an error through. I do not even let through any deviations from wholly arbitrary conventions I’ve been asked to uphold, if I can help it. If I have time to worry about how the AP Stylebook feels about adviser vs. advisor (it likes adviser), I will. If I have a chance to consult Garner on the subject of joining two short independent clauses with a conjunction but no comma, I will. Because I’m a perfectionist—I don’t think you can do this job if you’re not—and I correct these things just for the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done my job well.

But I’m not blessed with infinite time and an unending attention span, so if I can’t catch everything then, by god, I’m going to catch the most important stuff.

So I’d a million times rather let through a hideous typo than a factual error of any importance, rather allow a greengrocer’s apostrophe than have a writer’s meaning be lost or confused, rather permit a sea of ugly jargon (with definitions, of course) than replace it with one ambiguous layman’s term. In my line of work, the beauty of the language is always firmly secondary to its accuracy, though of course we aim for both.

Even within these guidelines, I perform additional triage. I’d rather allow a typo in a lead paragraph than a headline, or in the fifth paragraph than the first. I’d rather miss a dangling modifier where the meaning is nonetheless clear than one that will baffle the reader. I’d rather throw in some extraneous hyphens than create a misunderstanding through their omission.

Because it’s obvious what ought to be important to a journalistic editor. Text must be: 1. correct, 2. clear, and a distant 3. in compliance with accepted rules of formal writing.

A good editor is more than just an expert on the language, more even than someone who knows what they don’t know. A good editor accepts that they cannot achieve perfection and knows which errors it is essential to prevent and which, if missed, alter nothing of consequence.


8 comments on “Triage

  1. I like your list. A lot. I do think of Nos. 6, 7 and 9 as being under the same umbrella, and in a true triage situation, I might put less of a priority on Nos. 4 and 5. But I am glad to see you put style issues low on your list. I think style guide worship, particularly with the AP, makes too many young editors turn this list on its head.

  2. This list is like the bomb. It looks similar to how I tutor students when writing: start with faulty thesis statements until the only errors left are those that MS Word can point out. :D

  3. […] talked a little bit last week about how a copy editor’s job is not as much about commas and grammar mistakes as you might […]

  4. Great list; good thing to review before I start my next project. Thanks.

  5. […] writer to be allowed to flout the rules, the breach must add more than it detracts from the piece. Accuracy and clarity are always my first concerns, but consistency is worth something, too. Copy editors in journalism also strive to maintain the […]

  6. […] time is left before deadline, no matter how short that time is. Which is why we all have our mental triage lists—because sometimes you just won’t get everything done, and you have to know what to do […]

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