Sean Beckwith: Copy Desk Confidential
Maybe it was the anniversary of his death or my recent trip to New York or that I’m reading one of his books, but Anthony Bourdain has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve always pushed back on Hunter S. Thompson’s hold over the people of Aspen. I’m not saying HST wasn’t one of the most gifted, creative writers ever, I’m just saying I never got it.
However, I think I do now. You can’t comprehend a force like Hunter or Bourdain until you’ve lived during it. No amount of biographies or autobiographies are going to elicit that feeling of someone in their prime, making a clown show of universally accepted norms.
Nirvana Unplugged was the first CD I ever purchased, which admittedly was beyond my comprehension as a fifth grader. That said, Bourdain I understood, and I feel like he did to food what Kurt Cobain did to rock, which was sink a sledgehammer into the each respective industry’s dainty façade.
Part of me wishes I could do the same for copy editors; you know my version, “Copy Desk Confidential.”
We’re the oft overlooked, underappreciated, outsourced or outright laid off part of the newsroom. I know chefs and cooks work long, crappy hours and weekends and nights, but we work each and every day. The newspaper isn’t closed for service on Mondays or the office Christmas party.
Hopefully, you can crank that paper out before Jane starts doling out Jell-O shots or else you’re left stumbling in, trying to find the latest update on that guy who passed out drunk in a ditch and passed on to whatever afterlife awaits accidental alcohol-related deaths, which almost sounds welcoming when faced with a proofing a 40-inch story while shit canned.
I would like to equate our line of work to that of the humble line cook, but a copy editor is more expediter that anything. We’re calling for tickets to come to the window, double-, triple-checking them for consistency and ultimately sending them out to the waiters to deliver to the customers.
We know which cooks need a lot more editing and absolutely adore those who put up on-time, flaw-free and, most importantly, proofread stories.
If you’re wondering who the dishwashers of the newsroom are, they’re the proofreaders, which is why I’m particularly proud of working my way up from the dregs of wire reads to getting to put my own food on the table. (I don’t have an analogy for columnists. Maybe they’re “Tonight’s special,” which can either be an eye-opening experience or some three-day-old take the chef wanted to get out of the back of the walk-in.)
The aspect of kitchens that intrigues me is this concept of work family. Like cooks setting up their station for a Christmas Eve dinner service, wondering why the day guy didn’t leave him set up and generally surly until that first nip of whatever the chef’s drinking, the copy editors are logging on to do some pagination, bitching about the reporter who still doesn’t know how to execute an em dash (Option+shift+dash) and eagerly awaiting a pick-me-up.
It’s irrefutable that you’re going to bond with your coworker who’s also trying to stave off the post-Thanksgiving dinner nap while trying to lay out a behemoth Black Friday-sized paper. A lot of people go out for drinks after their shift, but the copy editor occasionally hits up happy hour with the reporters when they get off at 5 and then again after with the last remnants of the desk after sending the final page to prepress at 11.
If you’ve never worked up a buzz then transitioned into/sweated out a hangover during reads, how good of a copy editor are you really? On an unrelated note, if that dense water story/lullaby at 4 in the afternoon doesn’t make you doze off regardless of consumption, you’re a super hero.
Copy editing isn’t an art form, though. No one is looking at an article and thinking about the placement and content of a pull quote; noticing the action of the photo leading your eye where we want it; clean, concise copy; or the harmony of a headline and deck head grabbing your attention while also teasing you with enough details to keep reading.
Sure, a pretty photo spread, well-constructed infographic or creative feature story design will garner accolades from Dunder Milfflin-esque regional award ceremonies, but the best copy editors go unnoticed. They’re not getting dinged for subject-verb agreement, leaving an unnecessary “on” in or, god forbid, a misleading headline.
While I’ve definitely made all of those mistakes before, at this point I’m as confident in my ability to turn around stories for deadline as a grizzled line cook is at temping a steak to perfectly medium rare.
Having said all of that, I’m trying to make this job as honorable as possible, romanticize it, but people of my ilk are slowly disappearing due to budget cuts/the internet. It makes sense; we’re not the ones producing the content that gets the clicks.
The pandemic has shifted where we work and how many people we work with. I can’t remember the last time I closed down the newsroom and sidled up to the bar at Public House for a shot and a beer.
If it wasn’t in my best interest to distance myself from print journalism, I could see a career in copy editing (and column writing), championing the merits of sentence structure and well-written teasers.
I prefer working nights, I don’t mind a little holiday pay and I definitely enjoy the people of the desk. Whenever this run ends, I’m going to need to find another merry bunch of psychos to complain about work with over beers in a dive somewhere definitely after midnight because I can’t do Italian nachos and flights with Doug and Pam.
I can tell you one thing, though, it won’t be with kitchen staff. I’m a little crazy, but I’m not a complete dumbass.
Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Email him at email@example.com.
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