Summer 1998

Progress by Washington Post Copyeditors: 1996

Appeal to Improve Copy Desk

By Philip M. Foisie

March 11, 1966

Memo To: Ben Bradlee
Ben Gilbert
From: Phil Foisie
Re: Copyreading

1. I define copyreading as the fastidious and methodical word-by-word check of copy for spelling, grammar, syntax, conformity of style, ascertainable factual error—such as middle initials, titles, trade-names, whether figures add up, etc. It is a vital second check on taste, libel, general accuracy and clarity. It is an important first check on understandability: the copyreader is a kind of first test reader, protecting the subscriber against over-expertise on the one hand and writing down on the other.

The copyreader is also the desk man who ushers a story into print. He follows a story from edition to edition, sometimes from page to page, through the various mutations of new leads, inserts, ads, fixes, changes in heads, etc. He guards not only against reporter and editor error but against composing room error, continually checking galley proofs, page proofs, and the edition just off the press. He worries about such details as the spacing of sub-heads, the making of 8 pt. fixes, the accuracy and relevancy of cut lines. His most noticeable creative role is the writing of heads, and it is interesting that this is one of the most under-developed arts on The Post, in my opinion.

2. Few of the functions of copyreading thus described are performed well on the Washpost, at least on my side of the room, and many are not performed at all. Most of the copyreaders themselves agree. The craft has been allowed to degenerate to the point where often only the minimal marking of instructions to the printer is done. The process could be better described as “copy-fixing.”

3. Nothing I will say is meant to reflect on the copyreaders themselves. To a large extent, they are conforming to the apparent wish of the editors of the paper. These editors, coming largely from reportorial ranks (as they should be, I feel) and bringing their town-gown reporter-vs.-desk prejudices with them, seem to misunderstand and/or distrust the copyreading function. That is, they seem to confuse copyreading with editing in the broader sense (the terms are often used interchangeably) or they equate all copyreading with bad copyreading. They feel, accordingly, that copyreading tends to generate more error than it eliminates and, therefore, that copyreading is best that copy reads least.

4. Bad copyreading takes two forms: the rim man fails to do the things he should, and he does the things he shouldn’t. That is, he fails to make the routing checks for accuracy and language, and he edges into the editing function with itchy pencil in his frustrated search for a more creative role by making changes that affect the substantive accuracy of a story. (One hallmark of a skilled copyreader is that he not only knows what to change, but also what not to change.)

5. When I first came here nine years ago there was virtually no copyreading at all, as such. Later we restored the form of copyreading (the rim), but not the substance. Even today, the function is generally scorned, and those who perform it are ostracized professionally. The desks have been allowed to be used as a dumping ground for the infirm, the misfit, and the man—often hired for another purpose—who is waiting for an opening elsewhere. We have set no real standards, nor have we policed even those standards we’ve given lip service to. We have eliminated the danger of the itchy pencil, by intimidating the rim man into touching copy as little as possible, but this is a negative accomplishment since it is merely part of the process of destroying the function itself.

6. All this has generated bad morale (as bad as I’ve seen on any rim) and relative idleness, which in turn has generated more bad copyreading, which in turn has heightened distrust of the rim and prompted us to curb their function still further, and so on.

(The foreign desk itself invaded even the minimal responsibilities of the rim. I tend to copyread, from nervous compulsion, as I edit, for one thing. Also, I became so distressed over the inconsistencies and anomalies of our capitalization that I instructed my desk to mark for capitalization whenever they thought it might be missed on the rim; also, to note sometimes when subheads should logically fall. Some rim men, in turn, out of understandable pique, have taken to surrendering even the copyfixing function, insisting that the editing desks write in the agate “Washpost Staff Writer” credit lines, themselves. I note this only to emphasize the size of the problem we face.)

7. As the Post escalated its copy flow (and its appetite for expertness and condensation) desk men had to be added. At each stage, the question was: where do you put the bodies—on the foreign or national desks or on the rim?...By lavishing more attention on the copy before surrendering to the rim, we were clogging the copy flow. Also we were increasingly depriving the rim of a creative role. But I had fallen into step with those who distrusted the rim, as constituted. I sought to interpose a larger foreign desk between the copy and the copyreaders and to relegate the rim to a mere copyfixing role, not because this was institutionally sound but because given the state of the rim—degenerated beyond recall, I felt—the substance of copy had to be determined down to the exact mileage before copy was surrendered. The question to me was whether the rim or Foisie and Loucheim would determine what our readers were to be told about a complicated running foreign story. I made my decision years before when one elderly rim man threw back a story on a Peking radio broadcast as unusable because it was “Commie propaganda.”

8. The visible aspects of all this, aside from the product itself, is the bad morale and the relative underemployment of the rim men. It was suggested several weeks ago that both problems could be ameliorated by handing over some of the editing function (the national roundup was mentioned) not to enhance editing but to keep the rim busier and raise its morale. But that, I feel, is not the problem. The problem is that The Post is not being copyread.

The way to keep copyreaders busy is to require them to read copy. The way to keep copyreaders happy (some of them for all time, and others for the duration of their stay) is to make them feel that what they are doing is creative, essential, and respected, and—for the greater number who do not wish to make copyreading a profession—that their stay on the rim is not a life sentence. (To a lesser extent, the same formula applies to desk men generally.) Whatever you do, you shouldn’t solve one problem (rim morale) by creating a more serious problem (inexpert editing).

9. I realized, of course, that there is no absolute division between editing and copyreading. The editor determines the content of the story, the copyreader dwells on the words used to convey the content. But the functions merge in the fuzzy area of the restructuring of sentences and the second-guessing writers on le mot juste. The dividing line, and it varies according to the skill of the copyreader, is: when do you check back before changing copy, and when do you change copy with impunity without checking back? A good copyreader will sense when he is endangering the credibility of a story as he works to enhance its readability, and at that point he checks back.

10. The editing and copyreading functions can be performed by the same desk man, if he possesses both skills but both must be performed by someone if the paper is to be well edited, and if they are performed by the same man he usually must work the story over twice. This is because you approach copy in a different frame of mind when you are copyreading than when you are editing. It is a rare desk man who can do both consistently well at a single reading.

11. The value of combining the functions is obvious: it reduces the morale problem by giving the copyreader an additional and more creative role, and it lessens the danger of the itchy pencil that alters substance. The danger in this is less obvious but nonetheless real: we all have an instinctive disinclination in catching ourselves in an error we’ve already committed. The second-check role of the copyreader is eliminated.

12. Occasionally you will run onto a copyreader born to the craft, satisfied with it. He should be allowed to lavish his skill on the copy. One deskman told me that when he came aboard some years back, he was asked what he wanted to do on The Post. He said he wanted to be a copyreader. The reaction, he said, was, in effect: “You must be out of your mind.” I tend to agree, but we shouldn’t let on. We need professional wordsmiths on The Post, and there’s no reason why a lifetime devotion to the English language cannot be almost as respectable as a similar life focus on the Atlantic Alliance or Wall Street.

13. The guiding philosophy in the division or combining of desk functions, I think, should be that the maximum available expertise should be brought to bear at each stage in the handling of copy.

It will differ with a copyreader’s interests, background, talents, and adaptability, and the direction he gets from the slot, but generally this rule should apply: The more you tend toward a universal desk, the narrower a copyreader’s function must become in the interest of substantive accuracy. Conversely, the more you permit a copyreader to specialize by splitting the rim, the more you can permit him, eventually, to intrude into the editing function and help shape the substance of the story as well as its form.

14. If, for example, we opt to experiment by making the foreign desk responsible for its own copyreading, I would expect that before too many months had passed, some of the men we’d taken from the rim—if they were the right men—would be doing some editing, and some of the assistant foreign editors would be seeing stories through from the raw-copy folder to the last paragraph mark and the last subhead. You play these things by ear. One secret of a good rim is how painstakingly the slot man [the head of a particular copy desk] deals his copy, how well he knows his men. Once one of the rim men begins to display an interest in, and knowledge of, Africa, for instance, he will begin to edit stories on Africa, if he also displays the prehensile, skeptical, nitpicking frame of mind that good editing requires.

The only caveat I think is that a man who has created a story to the extent of having written or rewritten it should not copyread it as well. That is really asking for error.

15. As far as copyreading is concerned, it up to you. It’s been hinted that the function is unnecessary, that there’s too much duplication of effort by the editing and copy desks. But some form of organized copyreading can’t be avoided, if only because the minimal processing must take place, and continue from edition to edition.

How expert you wish your copyreading to be, how perfectionist, how high a standard you wish to set, is your decision. I strongly urge that we aim for the top. I think we should strive to make The Post letter perfect, not because this is so important itself (we are not a news magazine with researchers et al.) but because all sorts of good things will happen to copy, heads and cutlines in the striving.

I think we should care that Old Grand-dad is spelled with a hyphen, that it’s American Airlines and Eastern Air Lines; that a misplaced “only” should drive someone of the staff to drink. And the next time we have a billion dollar error, don’t flog the reporter or yourself; flog the copy desk, specifically the copyreader who let it go through—for that was nothing more than a simple copy desk mistake, that any good copy desk would have caught.

16. Don’t look about for precedents or guides. The quality of copyreading has declined everywhere, partly because the profession itself has declined and partly because more and more newspapers are bypassing the craft with the use of teletype services. Also, few papers have as many special correspondents as we do, and this poses problems and opportunities in copyreading as well as editing. I think we will have to set our own standards and devise our own system, as we have on communications. I’ll come in on Monday with several pages of specific suggestions on how we might proceed.

The headline on Philip M. Foisie’s obituary in The Washington Post on April 4, 1995, read “The Man Who Made The Post Cover the World.” When Foisie joined The Post as Cable Editor in 1955 the paper had no foreign correspondents. Under his prodding The Post opened its first foreign bureau, in London, in 1957, with Murrey Marder as its first correspondent. Appointed Foreign Editor in 1963, Foisie “was determined to expand the foreign staff,” Marder recalled. By 1981 there were 14 bureaus. Today The Post has 19 foreign bureaus with 25 correspondents. Another Foisie legacy is the improvement of editing by The Post copy desk, which can be traced back to the accompanying memo.

No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »