What It's Really Like To Be A Copy Editor

by Lori Fradkin


The word is douche bag. Douche space bag. People will insist that it’s one closed-up word-douchebag-but they are wrong. When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka. You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve. They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.

I know this because, during my three-plus years as a copy editor, I had this argument many, many times.

When I left to take a non-copyediting position at another company, I sent an e-mail to some of the editors telling them to spell it however they wanted going forward. I no longer cared. Which was kind of the case to begin with. I never had a personal investment in that space between the words, but as part of my job, it was my duty to point out that it should exist. It was a job that suited my tendency to worry about details, but one that also forced me to engage in unexpectedly absurd conversations.

I pretty much knew I wanted to go into journalism since I served as an editor on my high-school newspaper, the Three Penny Press, but what exactly I wanted to do changed throughout the years. Initially I thought I wanted to work for People, but then I realized that I am way too shy to approach famous people and ask them about their personal lives. Also, my desire to be their best friend would likely interfere with my ability to do objective reporting. Then I decided I wanted to work at a fashion magazine, a dream killed by The Devil Wears Prada, a friend’s internships in the industry and the acknowledgment that I’m not very good at putting clothing combinations together. (I like dresses for a reason.) But starting at some point in college, I aspired to one day, fingers crossed, work at New York magazine. I was a faithful subscriber, despite living in Evanston, Illinois.

It was my one-day-if-I-work-really-hard goal, but when I did the requisite round of informational interviews for jobs in New York, I paid a visit there as well. I was introduced to the copy chief, who oversees fact-checking and copyediting, and I mentioned that I was far more interested in the latter. The former, with its inherent asking-questions-of-strangers, makes me incredibly uncomfortable, even when it’s just “Are you still located at 123 Some Street?” Plus, I’d always had an eye for error: When one of my best friends in elementary school asked her mom what “f-u-k” meant because she’d seen it on the door to the bathroom stall, I helpfully jumped in: “I think you mean f-u-C-k.” You’re welcome, Friend’s Mom.

All of this is to say that I never necessarily aspired to be a copy editor. I enjoyed the experience-seriously, your job is to sit and read articles-but when my day-camp counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell her that I hoped one day to correct who-whom mix-ups or determine whether “faucetry” was a real, dictionary-approved word. I told her I wanted to be a princess.

The job has its perks-an accumulation of random knowledge, for instance-but it also has its side effects when you unintentionally drink the copy Kool-Aid. Once you train yourself to spot errors, you can’t not spot them. You can’t simply shut off the careful reading when you leave the office. You notice typos in novels, missing words in other magazines, incorrect punctuation on billboards. You have nightmares that your oversight turned Mayor Bloomberg into a “pubic” figure. You walk by a beauty salon the morning after you had sex for the first time with a guy you’ve been seeing and point out that there’s no such thing as “lazer” hair removal, realizing that this may not be the best way to get to have sex with him again.

Another downside of the job is that only your mistakes are apparent. The catches are basically invisible. No one will look at an edited article and think, I am certain that, once upon a time, there was a double quote where there should have been a single, and a wise person fixed the issue for my benefit. But if you let a “their” slip through in the place of a “there,” you are a complete moron. And if you are working online, commenters will let you know so. Then your boss will let you know that the commenters are saying so in case you didn’t see it yourself. Also, people will want to talk to you-outside of work-about grammar. Aside from the guy who called me “awkward, in a cute way,” I think the worst line I’ve heard was from the dude who asked my thoughts on the serial comma.

When you edit for the Web, you always feel like you’re playing a frantic game of catch-up. Editors may schedule posts to publish at a certain time, and your goal is to give them a read-through before they go live. You don’t leave your desk much. Once, however, we had a company-wide meeting, and I had to let things go unfinished. A co-worker could tell I was antsy about being away and taunted me that there might be typos on the Internet. This immediately struck us as funny because of course there were typos on the Internet-I just didn’t want them on my Internet. It’s also how I got the name of my future band, Typos on the Internet, for which he bought me a T-shirt (complete with a keyboard design) as a farewell present.

Still, despite all the rules, sometimes you get to make decisions regarding, um, unexplored territory: In February 2008, the New York Times ran an article on the cover of its “Arts & Leisure” section about a production of Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart. The piece was accompanied by a huge picture of Stewart embracing his co-star, Kate Fleetwood, in a moment of rapture. Both have their eyes closed, her face is turned upward, and he has one hand on her back pulling her closer. Only a sliver of his other hand is visible, and it appears fairly low on the front of her body. It could be read as if the rest of it were occupied, and the editor of the culture blog was quick to see the humor. He was equally amused by the fact that, as a result, I would have to tell him the proper way to punctuate the verb “finger-blasting.” Was it hyphenated? One word? Two? What would it be in noun form? After more discussion of the matter than is probably appropriate in a work setting, I made an executive decision that it should be hyphenated. This proved unexpectedly helpful for tagging posts when, months later, Don Draper finger-blasted Bobbie Barrett outside the powder room on Mad Men.

Not that pop culture didn’t try again and again to subvert me. My head still hurts a little when I think back to an article I edited about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The writer was trying to describe the combination of physical appearance and actual age of Brad Pitt’s character at various points in the movie. It took possibly as long as the movie itself to determine that the just-born Benjamin would be an old-man baby (that is, a baby who is like an old man) and the almost-dead Benjamin would be an old-baby man. I think? Honestly, I’m still not sure if this is right.

Thank God I was just a kid when Prince turned himself into a symbol, but musicians continue to think it’s cute or edgy to defy convention with their names. The day Panic at the Disco (né Panic! at the Disco) dropped that stupid exclamation point was one of my happiest as a copy editor. I felt so undeservedly victorious that I wrote a blog post about it. It began like this:

Late last week, in a development sure to shake the rock-and-roll and copyediting worlds, the band Panic! At the Disco announced that it was dropping the exclamation point from its name. “At least for me, it got a little bit annoying to try to write that every time you’re typing the name,” guitarist Ryan Ross told one of MTV’s two! reporters. “It was never part of the name to us.” Wha? The punctuation didn’t matter? “We wrote it that way once, when we first started the band, and then … people kept writing it that way, and it was a freakin’ whirlwind,” explained singer Brendon Urie. “We never made a big deal out of pulling it off the name. … I mean, every time I write [our name], I never put an exclamation point in there.”

Not that they came up that often, really, but that random mark had always annoyed me. The fact that they never meant it to be there was infuriating. (By the way, that “wha?” is a joke, not a typo.) Nevertheless, I went on to commend them for this announcement, even forgiving them for calling their latest album the awkwardly punctuated Pretty. Odd., and to plead for other musicians to follow their lead:

We only pray will.i.am., moe., and !!! will follow suit.

It’s like !!! never thought, Hey, what if someone wants to Google us!!! But they clearly didn’t read my piece or rudely chose to ignore it, sending a message to people like Ke$ha that kreativity is kick-a$$. (Beyoncé, on the other hand, deserves praise for her grammatically correct “If I Were a Boy”-because she’s not really a boy, you see? It’s a statement contrary to fact.)

To be fair, it’s not just famous people who are guilty of taking such liberties. In the past few years, my own university-educated sister has started spelling things semi-phonetically or with added letters for emphasis. She’s not tired, she’s tiyad, and sometimes even tiyadddddd. The word has appeared in text messages and e-mails so often that it’s become a family joke. Like I will tell my mom that it’s been a long week and I am very, very tiyad. I have also learned from my sister’s e-mails that not only did my little cousin look “omggggg adorabull” in his baseball gear but the planned fried-chicken addition to a restaurant’s menu sounded “yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.” She was both wrong and totally right on those.

I left the New York gig when the work started to feel routine. I still loved the publication and web site-Website?-but it was really only challenging in terms of how much content I had to go through in a short period of time, a fundamental conflict for the role. I feared my ability to do critical thinking was fading, so I got a job that required me to brainstorm ideas and figure out which stories to run rather than just clean things up in the end. I swore I wouldn’t let errors slip by if I saw them, but I also wanted to move on from my former role. That this plan failed is evidenced by the fact that my team now refers to a particular headline structure as the Lori Rule, as in “I think that breaks the Lori Rule…” They also IM me to ask how to spell things, even though all I’m going to do is look them up in the online dictionary. Of course, when a co-worker recently wrote me to say she had a copy question, I hastily responded with, “That’s what I’m hear for.” Sigh.

I know it’s all a little once-a-copy-editor-always-a-copy-editor, but I can’t help it if I think unnecessary quotes are funny, as if signs are trying to be ironic. Or if I’m turned off by guys who spell it “definately.” I don’t sit around and diagram sentences for fun or keep a dog-eared copy of Strunk & White on my nightstand. But I continue to empathize with other copy editors when I spot typos in their publications because I’ve definitely been there. Except when the New Yorker didn’t catch “Chris Mathews.” That was funny.

And, yes, I realize that writing a whole essay on copyediting is basically setting myself up to be called out because there is likely an error in here somewhere. You know what? It happens. If you want to tell me about it, I’m all ears. Just don’t be a douche bag.

Lori Fradkin is an editor at AOL. She lives in New York and worked previously at New York magazine.