Tag Archives: New York Times copy desk

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