He is a founding member (and two-time former president) of the American Copy Editors Society. I knew of him long before I met him, when he led a discussion for a seminar I was planning for news editors and copy desk chiefs at an American Press Institute workshop, probably in 2006 or so.
He’s a guardian of the language who enforces the rules that matter and debunks the ones that don’t. He may be an Old Editor, but he’s also a prolific blogger and podcaster, a witty tweep and he was the first person to point out that I was violating Facebook etiquette early in my social media days by syncing my Twitter and Facebook accounts so that nearly all my tweets posted to Facebook (way too often to post on FB, but an acceptable pace for Twitter).
I’m pleased to see that John has compiled some of his wisdom into a book: The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing.
John does not pretend that all the maxims are original. In the preface he handles attribution deftly:
Some you may find familiar, such as the Chicago News Bureau’s, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” some are adapted from the remarks of my own editors, some are from the general lore, and some – many , actually – are my own.”
I should add that I didn’t know the maxim about Mom (which I’ve used a time or two on my blog) had a known origin. It figures that John would know. Even the familiar and adapted maxims are delivered and explained in John’s authoritative voice and with his dry wit. This is very much his book, even if you’ve heard and read some of the wisdom before.
It’s a quick read: 60 maxims, each presented on its own page. Even with John’s elaborations, many of the maxims don’t fill their pages. Makes sense that an editor who patiently (but not quietly, if you follow his blog and social media) cuts reporters’ stories down to size would write a short book.
You should read the book, but here were a few highlights for me:
Your mother does not work here. Pick up after yourself.
Now that the War on Editing has reduced copy desk staffs to a handful of shell-shocked survivors cowering in their crumbling redoubts, there is no one left to clean up after you.
You will have to contrive to manage your own spelling and punctuation and grammar and usage. You will have to structure and organize and tighten your own work, because increasingly there is no one between you and the reader who will attend to that.
I wouldn’t characterize the reduction of copy desks as a War on Editing, but I’m glad John does. Newsrooms have been forced to make tough decisions as our print advertising has collapsed, and I see the cuts, wherever they fell, as a war for survival, not a war against anything of value. But the damage has been severe. While I can justify the decisions, I don’t quarrel with John’s description of the results and I’m glad he’s noting the severity of the damage.
And, I should add, when I blogged advice for copy editors in the current newsroom economy last year, John responded insightfully, so his “War on Editing” reference is not the pout of someone who doesn’t understand, just tough talk from The Old Editor. And what else would you expect?
I’ll also add that it was great to see John recently in St. Louis at the ACES conference, which had a great turnout. Partly because the Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication brought out some non-copy editors like me, partly because of excellent leadership from people such as John and ACES President Teresa Schmedding, partly because the society has expanded well beyond newspaper copy editors and partly because the conference provides good programming and social events, ACES appears to be thriving, war or not.
I also like that John didn’t linger on the war point but moved on to important advice for journalists. For too much of my career, too many journalists let the copy desk clean up after them. Now you have to take responsibility for your own work and John stated that fact elegantly and bluntly.
I should point out here that John’s writing illustrates that he has never been a copy editor who is a slave to style rules. Such a slave – and I’ve encountered a few – would have cluttered John’s series with commas (spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage … structure, organize and tighten), but John created a strong cadence and effective emphasis in the passage with his use of “and” instead of commas. He’s not just a legendary editor, but a skillful writer with a recognizable voice and confidence to break the rules when the voice would say it better.
Some other favorite maxims from the book (you’ll have to read it to catch John’s elaborations on each):
The AP Stylebook is a set of guidelines, not dictation from Jehovah to Moses or a substitute for editorial judgment.
Sitting in daily meetings shortens your life more than smoking cigarettes.
Production of journalism, like the driving of mules, cannot be accomplished without swearing.
Be suspicious of all one-sentence injunctions about writing and editing.
The next time you use “to die for” in copy, we can make that happen.
Kid, there are two places you want to stay away from when you write: gritty streets and leafy suburbs.
If you are not possessed of a perpetually filthy mind, you are ill-equipped to edit.
Or, as Mike Pauly, another old editor, explained to me at the Des Moines Register in the 1970s after he caught a double entendre in a headline I wrote (but won’t repeat here): “It takes a dirty mind to put out a clean newspaper.”
Use the God-given delete key on these: “controversial,” “dramatic,” “legendary,” “massive,” “prestigious,” “storied.”
Good advice, but I’ll ignore it. John really is legendary among copy editors, so I resisted the urge to delete here and above. Hell, he’s storied, too.
John also provides excellent advice for editors in this maxim:
Always honor the writer’s intentions. If they can be discerned and make any sense.
When you are the editor, you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s the writer’s story, not yours. Your task is to assist the writer in accomplishing his or her purposes, not substituting yours. …
With trepidation, I ask whether I have found an error in John’s book, which might be a career highlight if I have. In elaborating on the maxim above, John continued:
That said, remember T.S. Eliot; “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
It seems to me that the semicolon there should be a colon. But perhaps John or you will advance my education on the use of the semicolon (one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks). Or perhaps John snuck that in as a copy-editing test and I just passed. Or perhaps John was slyly pointing out that even the best writers and editors need editors. Update: John confirms that the semicolon was a typo, caught by a student editor but somehow it didn’t get fixed before publication.
And we all need The Old Editor.
Footnote: My blog has no copy desk, other than readers who kindly (most of the time) help me correct my errors, so I reread this piece several times before posting. It would just be wrong to have a style or grammar error in a piece about John, even if I had not been so audacious as to point out what I believe was an error by him. With as many times as I read this, though, I still presume something slipped by me. Please point it out quickly – and gently. Maybe I can fix it before John reads this.