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Editors fight the good fight for clear communication

This is a bonus extended edition of a column I wrote for the most recent newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. It seems an appropriate topic as we prepare to pause on Thursday, National Grammar Day, to celebrate the nation’s editors, grammarians, usage experts, English teachers, linguists, word bloggers, Scrabble players, and greengrocers.

In a packed room of frightened copy editors at one of the penultimate sessions of ACES 2009, one question particularly hit the point: Sure, there are other jobs, but where else can I contribute so powerfully to the public good?

That had been my nettlesome question for weeks. It was less than a month since my last day at a daily newspaper. For the first time in 20 years, I had nothing to do with the local paper, no influence on the community’s focal point of public discourse. I wasn’t sure if I’d be satisfied wherever else I might land.

One of my first applications was for a copy-editing job at a company that does Web-based marketing for drug companies. No one bit at that application. I would have been compelled to take the job had it been offered, and I probably would have found some satisfaction in it. Some.

But, face it, beyond newspapers, where can you so directly and honestly give people information they need to get by? It’s hard to replicate that sense of accomplishment elsewhere.

“Nobody goes into journalism for the money,” former copy editor and reporter Leigh Roessler said. “You go into it because you feel like you can help people.”

Roessler got into community activism when she was free of ethical considerations imposed by her newspaper job. She helped form an area commission for her Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood.

“If you’re involved in journalism, you know more than 99.9 percent of the public how government works,” she said.

Roessler is now business manager for Huber and Co. Interactive, a Web and social media firm. She stays out of local politics to avoid a conflict of interest involving a client, so she spends her volunteer time at church and her daughter’s school.

She also serves as her company’s copy editor. But after a career in editing, there is no shame in trying something else.

An editor friend once told me that, years ago, he heard Kurt Vonnegut say something along the lines of “Never be ashamed of what you have to do during the day in order to write at night.” Whether we write our novel or become community activists or go to band-booster meetings, there are ways to be worthwhile to society beyond having our work in the daily newspaper.

One thing I’ve learned from the nonjournalist copy editors I’ve met is that one can be happy and influential editing on the outside. Editing at any level is fighting the good fight for clear writing. Copy editing’s core is the same no matter who signs your paycheck. Copy editors help the process of communication by correcting errors and improving clarity. Poor writing often is a simple form of obfuscation, and copy editors beat the drum for clear writing. Everyone benefits when we understand each other.

Rob Reinalda, formerly of the New York Daily News, was a news editor at the Chicago Tribune before 2008’s layoffs. He landed at Ragan Communications, where he is executive editor and helps a host of others with that clarity thing.

His job is still about “providing good information” to the readers. He said he tries to maintain journalistic standards, including clear language, fairness, balanced reporting and sound structure. He sets style for his company and does more writing than he could on the desk, including scripts for Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcasts.

I used to think of copy editors employed by private companies as working for the owners or the shareholders, while I nobly worked for the readers. It turns out, every editor is working for the readers and we all get paid by someone else so we can do it. It’s a great system, and it’s not just journalists who enjoy it.

The breadth of the influence out here is less clear. A few score people might have read a scholarly article I edited compared to tens or hundreds of thousands who have read a front-page story I improved. But that bit of scholarship might contribute to emerging thought and have just as much influence as one more story about the economic meltdown. We all lament how fleeting newspaper stories can be. Hundreds of thousands of words are pieced together every night and end up in the recycle bin by the end of the day. Edit a book, though, and your work may outlive you.

Lament the lowering of standards and the gutting of a noble institution. But don’t think defrocked newspaper copy editors are done making a difference.

To learn about the American Copy Editors Society and its upcoming conference in Philadelphia, go to

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