Editor Interview #5 – John E. McIntyrePosted: February 24, 2011
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- What is it about editing that drew you to it?
I was a failed eighteenth-century man, having (wisely) abandoned a dissertation on Rochester and Swift, and I needed to make a living. Six summers in high school and college working on a weekly paper in Fleming County, Kentucky, had given me experience in journalism, and I presented myself to The Cincinnati Enquirer, which took a chance on placing me on the copy desk and got me started on a thirty-year-plus career in newspapering. I immediately took to the camaraderie—copy editors tend to be smart people with mordant senses of humor. I liked the structure, being constitutionally better suited to meeting other people’s deadlines than my own. I liked taking up an article and making it cleaner, tighter, clearer.
- What character/personality trait, if any, do you believe is necessary to edit well?
Mild obsessive-compulsive disorder is always a help. Obsessive-compulsive because you have to care about all the details, have to itch to make things right. Mild because if you let it get severe, you’ll never be able to finish anything. Sitzlust is also useful. I’d much rather be in a chair at a desk for eight or ten hours than running about trying to extract sentences from people who are inarticulate, hostile, or both. And, if you can keep it under wraps, the warm glow of superiority at identifying other people’s mistakes will sustain you.
- What’s the most common mistake you find when you edit?
The annoying little things never go away: the erroneous plurals and possessives, the misplaced modifiers, the confusion of homonyms. You’d think that people would learn such simple stuff, but they don’t, and mainly they don’t seem to care much about them.
But the really egregious lapses are less in the micro than in the macro. The failure to GET TO THE POINT—I’m mortal, and I can feel the minutes slipping past me while the writer indulges in prolonged throat-clearing before tortuously arriving at some identifiable purpose for writing.
- What advice would you give aspiring editors or beginning writers?
Read a lot, and read good stuff. You can’t be an effective editor without knowing what the ablest writers are doing and seeing where the language is headed when wielded by adepts. (Read some trash too; you need to be connected with the culture.) Keep replenishing your store of general knowledge, and bear down hard on the subjects that most interest you.
Find some reliable websites, [cough] modesty forbids [cough], that you can trust, and follow the author to the ones he or she likes. Language Log is good for eavesdropping on the linguists.
Joining the American Copy Editors Society is a good idea. Go to the conferences, introduce yourself to people, attend the workshops, and never neglect to spend time at the bar listening to the stories.
And write and edit as much as you can. Blog if you must. You will find that your writing and editing will reinforce each other. Look into freelance work if you can’t get anything permanent; the pay will be dreadful, and so will the prose, but you’ll get useful experience. (You didn’t go into this for glamour, you know.)
- Would you share your favorite editing resources with us (books, web sites, conferences, etc.)?
Since I am an obvious antique, it should not surprise that I still reach first for a book: a dictionary (I like American Heritage and the New Oxford American particularly and would subscribe to the OED if I could afford it), Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the Chicago Manual, dozens of other books on language and usage.
I’ve been meaning to put together a list of electronic references for my students but haven’t got around to it; and I’m between editions now, so you won’t have it here. Start with Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, and go from there.
I mentioned the American Copy Editors Society above. You work solitarily, gazing at texts. No one but writers understands just what you do, and they resent it half the time. Then you go to an ACES conference, and you’re in a room with three hundred people who are just like you: mildly obsessive-compulsive, drunk on language, and possessed of mordant senses of humor. You are no longer alone. You have people. It is too precious an experience for you to pass up lightly.
- Anything else you’d like to add regarding editing?
I tell my undergraduate students that editing is just about the most fun you can have legally.
Poor fools, they never believe me.
John, thanks for sharing your editing viewpoints with us. You are right; reading your advice was just about the most fun I’ve had legally in months. 😉