Category Archives: editorial work (both done personally by me and as practiced in journalism and publishing)

copyeditors, who needs ‘em (The New York Times, that’s who)


Mr. Donleavy lived in London and on the Isle of Man for most of the 1950s and ’60s, then moved to Ireland in 1969 after it had abolished the income tax for creative artists, including writer [italics added].

— “J.P. Donleavy, Acclaimed Author of ‘The Ginger Man,’ Dies at 91,” by Anita Gates, The New York Times, September 13, 2017



I worked as a proofreader and copyeditor during the 1970’s and 1980’s and made a living at it exclusively for about five years during which I was self employed. I greatly benefited from a professional course I took with a Doubleday editor and from on the job experience. My work improved over time, pretty fast. It had to. One has to be thoroughly knowledgeable and competent, diligent, and meticulous to do such work.

I saved, many times, very good writers from egregious errors. As a writer over the years, I know how essential to any writer copyeditors and proofreaders are. Check out the acknowledgments section of a scholarly book and more often than not you will find the author stating just that.

So why did The New York Times eliminate its stand-alone copy desks?



“Editing is vital to The Times. It separates us from the competition. It is one of the reasons readers trust our information. And it elevates our language,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet recently stated. (“Dean Baquet Answers Readers’ Questions on Editing in the Newsroom,” The New York Times, July 6, 2017.) He was speaking about the Times’s decision to eliminate its stand-alone copyediting desks and fire dozens of (mostly veteran) copyeditors.

I agree that editing is vital. Also, as a regular Times reader for some 50 years, I have noticed that it has always seemed to be more carefully edited than most daily newspapers, in addition to the fact that the stories are notably polished and well written.

Suddenly, wouldn’t you just know it, despite assurances that quality would not suffer, frequent typos and the like are cropping up in Times articles. This despite Baquet’s assurances that “we will be watching closely to make sure that our stories are still up to the standards our readers expect.” When I read that statement three months ago, his words did not sound reassuring. Who will be watching closely?



As noted above, I once took an invaluable copyediting course. The instructor made a point about why attention to detail on the part of editors and copyeditors is essential: Sloppiness in editing and production tends to decrease the reader’s overall confidence in a piece of writing (I am not thinking of fiction) and its accuracy. One starts to wonder, with careless errors here and there, if maybe there are not more serious errors, such as misspelled names, wrong dates, errors of fact, and other mistakes for which one will find the newspaper apologizing in its “Corrections” section. Or that can make the informed reader of a nonfiction book wonder whether he or she can trust its contents. If there are frequent mistakes of the kind a copyeditor should have caught in the published book (such as the time that I found W. E. B. Du Bois’s name being misspelled throughout a book that was devoted to African American culture and writers), one may suspect that it was rushed into print and that one can’t rely on it as a source.



There is a noticeable trend away from correctness in written and spoken language. Electronic communication is mostly responsible for this, it seems: the internet, texting, and email. The age of print, which began with Guttenberg almost six centuries ago, may be ending. This would be incredibly unfortunate — devastating, in my opinion.


— Roger W. Smith

   September 13, 2017

Roger W. Smith, “My Career as a Freelancer”


During the 1980’s, I made my living as a freelancer. I never earned much, but I did manage, which was in itself an achievement, to get steady work. In my best year, I made somewhere between 16 and 17 thousand dollars, which was then a creditable though not great income and was proof that I had a legitimate freelance occupation.

I started out doing occasional writing of articles and proofreading. In fact, my entree into freelancing, and into publishing — I was employed full time as an advertising copywriter for three publishers for four years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s — came about through freelance proofreading work for the publisher Putnam’s, which began in 1977. A friend of mine who worked at Putnam’s recommended me to the in house supervisor of freelancers.

While working full time at Columbia University, I had taken, in 1976, a noncredit course at Hunter College taught by T. O’Connor Sloane, a high ranking editor at Doubleday. It was an outstanding course, very well organized, very well presented, and very thorough. I was greatly interested.

The course was taught once a week in the evenings for two or three hours, and when I was there, I became — despite having worked a full day — fully alert and energized. I learned a great deal; every fundamental of proofreading and copyediting, as well as book production, was covered. I took excellent notes and still have them.

I had always thought of myself as a competent speller, but, like most educated people, I wasn’t. (When I was 15, my high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, told me that one area of composition I had to work on was spelling.) Mr. Sloane, the instructor in the Hunter College course devoted part of one class to spelling. He said that overcoming spelling difficulties was simply a matter of recognizing and learning how to spell a few commonly misspelled words. He then produced a handout, a list of the 25 or so most commonly misspelled words. Ones I remember: misspell, judgment, acknowledgment, chaise longue, supersede, accommodate. (Supersede, he explained, comes from the Latin, super seder, to sit above. He had helpful explanations like this enabled one to remember the correct spelling.)

Since that lesson, I have always been an excellent speller.

He discussed fees in the last lesson. He said with irony that the class always tended to laugh when he commented on this topic. The freelance fees he mentioned were then in the neighborhood of $3.50 an hour, which seemed okay.

This course greatly helped me. My friend had previously worked at Funk & Wagnalls and through his intercession I got the opportunity (in around 1976) to take a proofreading/copyediting test there. I did not do well and was not hired. (This was just before I took the evening course with the Doubleday editor.)

The guy who gave me the test, a young editor, was sort of condescending. I was very frustrated, because I was very determined to get into publishing and knew that, if given the opportunity, I would overcome any deficiencies I had and would do well. I had the basic skills, I was certain, was very conscientious and very detail oriented. If I was unsure about the spelling of a word, I would look it up.

When (after taking the Hunter College course), I started freelancing as a proofreader for Putnam’s, I did NOT do good work on the whole. I was worried about overcharging them; worked way too fast and carelessly, as it turned out; submitted bills that were unusually low; and missed lots of errors. (I remember 33 or so in one book, I was later told.)

My in house supervisor/contact, Fred Sawyer, was patient with me and told me to work slower. I got some very good books to proofread. One, by a son of RFK, was about a famed Southern civil rights judge. Another was novel by a very popular science fiction writer, Frank Herbert. The sci fi novel was clever but pretty far out. Weird language and concepts.

Later, I became a pretty good proofreader, working for the Random House College Division and a medical publisher, Raven Press, among other places. The work required intense concentration. It’s awfully easy to pass over typos when reading.

For Random House and a couple of other places, a take home test was required to get hired. One would think that a take home test would be easy — after all, you have unlimited time to complete it — but the Random House proofreading test was extremely hard. It was a different story for me from my experience with the Funk & Wagnalls test, thanks to the Hunter College course, and, with the freelance experience I had by now, I was able to ace the test.

I didn’t do copyediting per se (as opposed to proofreading) until late in my freelance career, but I became very good at it. (I had actually become good at catching errors of fact and grammar in my capacity as a proofreader, where you were allowed to query dubious things in the margins of the proofs. I recall one book on African-American history where the author, who one would think would at least know such things, misspelled W. E. Du Bois’s name throughout.) The bulk of the copyediting I did was for an academic who was the head of a foundation. He couldn’t praise my work enough and acknowledged it in his prefaces.  He kept holding out the promise that he would promote and abet my advancement, but nothing came of it.

I developed into a very good copyeditor. It’s something one has to have a background and aptitude for, obviously, but one also has to have experience. It requires broad knowledge and a sixth sense of what to look for.


— Roger W. Smith

   August 2015