A clergyman, a Motown group and a ruffed grouse walk into a bar …
A copy editor I know experienced one of those gut-dropping, cold sweat moments of journalistic misery.
She came across the designation “Rt. Rev.” as a title before the name of a clergyman. She’d never seen that before, and it was as clear as day to her that “Rt.” in this case was an abbreviation for “retired.” And that’s how she wrote it out.
The newspaper came to be published. The phone calls came soon after. Don’t you people know that Rt. Rev. stands for “right reverend”?
Well, some people do know that. But this particular copy editor did not know it, and in the rush of deadline and distractions, she didn’t go back and check.
The next day she felt … indescribable.
I know. I’ve been there. Words cannot express the horror.
As a college sophomore in the 1980s—having grown up on a musical diet that included the Beatles, Tchaikovsky, Abba, a few hundred show tunes, a song about Don Gato the pussycat who loved a lady nice and fat, Copland, the Eagles and some early punk, but not much Motown—I wrote a story that referred to a group called Martha Reed & The Bandellos.
It did occur to me to check that, but then who knows what happened? The phone rang, or a bee flew in the window, or I drifted off to get a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine in my dorm, and I never troubled myself to look it up before turning the story in.
An editor saved me. It didn’t get published. I did get roundly teased, for a long time, as I deserved. And I discovered Martha Reeves & The Vandellas.
I learned something about myself: I didn’t want to be a lazy reporter who let editors pick up my dirty socks. I would be responsible. I’d question things I thought I knew. I’d check facts. I’d look it up. I would be the kind of reporter, in fact, who would ultimately spend several years as a copy editor, which I am now.
And yet, for all my high-minded goals, I made and make mistakes.
Remember when this paper confused William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame with George Rogers Clark? That was mine. Remember when this paper called a ruffed grouse a “ruffled” grouse? That was mine. Remember when shriek was spelled “shrEIk” and it got in the paper that way? Mine.
And you know all those annoying little errors involving short words like “a,” “of,” “for,” “to,” “has,” “but” and “in” that are either omitted when they should be left in or left in when they should be omitted? I can’t claim them all, but many of those were mine. They’re like mosquitoes, invisible until they’ve drawn blood.
Copy editors do screw up. We miss things. Forget to check things. Flat don’t know things. And even when we introduce an error into someone else’s work, the very worst thing a copy editor can do, we must survive it and carry on.
We do, because we know that while such rare and public errors bring rightful condemnation, they are far outweighed by the infinite unsung ass-savings we pull off every single day.
The copy editor who changed “right” to “retired” learned from her mistake, and not just about the Episcopalian clergy and their titles. She also learned about assumptions, and how they can jump you from behind.
Not only did that experience ensure that she would never again prematurely retire a right reverend, it made her a more careful copy editor. Sadder temporarily. But wiser forever.