My Copy Editor Confession

Embarrassed walrusOver at The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller has asked copy editors to share some of their embarrassing mistakes, which I think is a great idea. It’s good to remind non-editors that copy editors are both human and all too aware of our fallibility, and to reassure other copy editors that they’re not the only ones who goof.

I’m going to confine myself to one confession, but it’s a doozy:

I once sent a paper to press with dummy text in all the page-one teases.

(All the newspaper editors just inhaled sharply through their teeth.)

I was working at one of those outfits where copy editors do both layout and editing, and on this particular night, the front page and jump were ready well before everything else, so I laid them out and printed the draft of page one for proofreading. I left the teases blank—well, technically they said “Tease Goes Here XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX”—because I hadn’t laid out the rest of the paper, so I didn’t know what to tease yet.

The night wore on, and I put the rest of the paper together, editing and laying out a late story on a local government meeting about 20 minutes before deadline. I just… never went back to fill in the teases. I forgot. And I had no idea what I’d done until I came in the next day and saw the front page.

Everyone in newspapers has made at least one very visible, very embarrassing mistake, so my coworkers were surprisingly understanding. But I still cringe every time I think about it.

And this, kids, is why I am an obnoxiously persistent crusader for dummy text like “Hed goes here and here” or “Caption eawlfdjkfhbdsaklfdjkla” rather than joke or placeholder text. Dummy text is more likely to jump out at you when glancing over pages before sending them to press—although it’s clearly not an infallible system—and more importantly, dummy text doesn’t get you or your publication in trouble if it accidentally gets printed. What if I’d written something in those teaser boxes? Something like, “Another boring councilman meeting, page whatever,” or “Lady Minutemen is still the dumbest team name, page who cares”? Reader, I have dearly wanted to type things like that into spaces where real text should go to give the proofreader a laugh, but I even more dearly do not want to get fired. So I leave the dummy text and scribble jokey suggested headlines in the margins or call them out to the rest of the copy desk while feigning typing.

Learn from me, children. No jokes in live files.


2 comments on “My Copy Editor Confession

  1. My first real editing job was for my university’s independent study program. Every course manual was supposed to have certain elements, one of which was an instructor introduction letter. One of my coworkers told the story of a time when the instructor failed to provide one, so she wrote a fake one for him as a joke to the proofreader. But then the whole thing was sent to the author for review.

    Luckily, her fake letter was just silly and not overly offensive, and the author had a good sense of humor about it. Still, our boss was not amused, and my coworker probably wanted to crawl under a rock and die. Amazingly, she didn’t get fired for it.

    On another occasion, I was making corrections to a math course manual that we’d already published, and I found the sentence “Editors rule” in the middle of a paragraph about algebra. No, editors. When you put jokes in live files, you don’t rule.

    I’m glad I was able to learn that lesson early in my career and to learn it from others’ mistakes and not my own.

  2. Brilliant image, where is it. It sums up that ‘face in hands’ feeling beautifully. Proofreading gaffes – none yet that I know of, but there’s plenty of time! The closest was when the cat walked over the keyboard whilst I was making a cup of tea. The line of r’s and 8’s near the top of the page was spotted and removed just before saving and attaching the completed job!

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