“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they . . . examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
— Acts 17:11 NIV
“Too often, what is presented as theology or history is nothing more than canonized opinion.”
In this post I examine the nature and role of copyeditors, especially those who deal with religious copy, as I did over a period of thirty-plus years for several different Christian book publishers and many different individual ministers and ministries.
During that period I also copyedited a wide variety of materials for several secular publishers, particularly non-fiction manuscripts about American history (including biography and autobiography), the Civil War, Southern culture, Western outlaws and lawmen, cowboys and Indians, etc.
In those years as a professional copyeditor, I developed and applied the same traits of innate curiosity, devotion to detail, pursuit of fact, quest for accuracy, and desire for honesty, sincerity, and integrity that had influenced me from earliest childhood. (See the conclusion to my earlier post titled “My Favorite Childhood Books/The Truth about Santa Claus” in which I referred to my “lifelong search for truth.”)
From these three decades of experience in copyediting I collected the following quotes and excerpts on the subject (with my comments in parentheses), beginning with a definition of the copyeditor and a description of his nature and purpose, followed by my own observations on these subjects (emphasis in italics).
“The copyeditor is the guardian of precision, the protector of the facts, a professional perfectionist dedicated to the idea that you can believe what you read . . . Authors and copyeditors get along about as well as children and dentists. A good copyeditor wields his drill with delicacy and skill, but sometimes it hurts . . . If you sometimes feel antagonistic toward your copyeditor, you’re in good company—but like fillings and root canals, the copyeditor’s changes are for your own good.”
—From Manuscript to Book
“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft [copy].”
—H. G. Wells
“Editing is the same as arguing with writers—same thing exactly.” (I never argued with writers, but some of them argued with me–even “gnashing their teeth and rending their garments” against me–because of the changes I made in their scripts, usually those changes required by editorial guidelines. That was not a part of my job that I relished.)
“Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
—Rep. Willard Duncan Vandiver,
speaking in Philadelphia in 1819,
Origin of the Missouri state motto,
“The Show Me State”
“You blew in from the Middle West
And certainly impressed
The population hereabouts.
But, honey, I’ve got news for you,
I’m from Missouri too,
So naturally I’ve got my doubts.”
—“You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,”
Song by Bob Russell and John Benson Brooks, 1948
“All true copyeditors are from Missouri. Their first question is, ‘Says who?’ Their first response is: ‘Show me.’ They are neither quickly convinced nor easily persuaded. They are not prime prospects for snake oil salesmen, purveyors of get-rich-quick schemes, or unscrupulous politicians, preachers, promoters, or other public panderers.
[Today copyeditors’ skepticism would include forwarded email messages, especially those of a hardcore religious/political nature, which are notoriously unreliable. Naturally, I always try to verify the accuracy of all forwarded messages before forwarding them to others. As someone has said about such unsubstantiated messages, “We must be very careful lest we become fountains of misinformation,” to which I added, “or disinformation!”]
“Don’t look for them on bandwagons or following off after pied pipers or self-appointed gurus. They don’t trust ‘big mouths’ or ‘little voices,’ ‘glad hands’ or ‘glib tongues.’ They are not impressed by fat pocketbooks or inflated egos, hot shots or cool dudes, know-it-alls or self-styled ‘experts.’
“They look for character, not charisma, fruit not gifts. Like God, they search for truth in the inward parts, because they know that it is truth—and not money, power, fame, or success—that sets men free.
“If you are dishonest, stay away from a copyeditor, because he will see through you like a piece of wet toilet paper and will be on your case like ugly on an ape. If you don’t want to hear the truth, then don’t ask a copyeditor because he is going to tell it like it is even if he knows it will bankrupt both you and him.
“But if you are honest, if you have no ulterior motives or hidden agendas, if you really want to know the truth so you can face it and do it, then you have nothing to fear from the copyeditor, because to him integrity is the ultimate virtue—and either you have it or you don’t. It’s just that simple.”
“Remember, son, the word is integrity.”
—From a letter written to his son by Gen. William F. Dean,
a POW in the Korean War, just before
his expected execution by his captors
Sample of My Copyeditor’s Zeal for Truth
“So think carefully about what you are [reading].”
–Luke 8:18 ERV
To illustrate the above quotations, here is a sample of my copyeditor’s zeal for truth. It is a copy of a letter to the editor of the Tulsa World that I wrote about an editorial that I found inaccurate and hypocritical. It is just one of several that I wrote over the years to the Oklahoma media to correct false information about or impressions of my beloved native state.
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Editorial Page Editor
P.O. Box 1770
Tulsa, OK 74102
“At least the city [of Tulsa] didn’t have the governor standing in the schoolhouse door to block black children from entering a school. That happened in Little Rock.”
—“The great divide,” editorial page,
Tulsa World, Sunday, May 23, 2004
As a native of Arkansas, and a member of the Arkansas National Guard in September 1957 when elements of it were called out by Gov. Orval Faubus at the time of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, I feel that your statement above is both inaccurate and misleading.
If memory serves me correctly, Governor Faubus never actually stood in the schoolhouse door to block black children from entering. Rather, he mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the enrollment of the now famous “Little Rock Nine.” I have verified this fact by a careful re-examination of Little Rock, 1957: Historic Front Pages from the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette Aug. 29, 1957-Oct. 4, 1957, published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on August 29, 1997, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of that history-making event.
I assume that when you wrote the above quotation either you were speaking metaphorically or you were thinking of Gov. George Wallace who did literally stand in the schoolhouse (actually university) door in a failed attempt to block the integration of the University of Alabama.
In the interest of historic accuracy and journalistic integrity, and on behalf of all Arkansans, particularly the citizens of Little Rock, who had no part in this action by their governor then and who may not be aware of your statement and its implications now, may I respectfully request that a clarification of this important point be made in a subsequent issue of your publication?
Note: Despite my effort, the editor of the Tulsa World never printed a retraction or even a correction. What I did not mention in my letter was that although a mob of some five hundred people did gather to protest the integration of Central High School, Little Rock did not have one of the worst race riots in American history in which hundreds of blacks were either killed, wounded, or missing or had their homes and businesses demolished in the utter destruction of a thirty-five-square-block area of the black part of the city. That happened in Tulsa, a city that was as racially segregated as any in Arkansas. To read more about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, click here.
The Hard-Headed, Soft-Hearted Copyeditor
“I’m nuthin’ if I ain’t honest. As a country boy from Arkansaw, I ain’t got no better sense than to tell it like it is–or at least to call it like I see it! With me, what you see is what you get. I am an Arkie in whom there is no guile.”
After reading the reams of material about me on this blog and the quotations and sample of the nature and role of the copyeditor above, you may be wondering how such a self-described “hopeless romantic and helpless neurotic” as I am could have ever become a “guardian of precision, a protector of the facts, a professional perfectionist dedicated to the idea that you can believe what you read.”
The answer was provided in the earlier post titled “My Mother’s Bible” in which I described how I, an unemployed French teacher, was compelled by circumstances beyond my control to come to Tulsa as a French translator and then to take over the job of editorial assistant in order to provide for my family. That position eventually led me–for better or for worse–to become a copyeditor.
So if you are asking, “Who made you the judge of other people’s writings?” I can only respond, “It seems that God did–it certainly wasn’t my idea!”
But besides the actual physical events that forced me to become a copyeditor, there are also the personal and spiritual influences that led me almost inevitably to fulfill that role. After all these years, I can look back now and see that, given my unique combination of a hard head and a soft heart, as well as my “obsessive-compulsive” nature and my inherent desire to seek, find, and share the truth, my becoming a copyeditor was a foregone conclusion, even though throughout all these long years I have continually sought to become a writer.
I used to say, “Rather than being a religious editor in exile, I want to be a Southern writer in residence.” Now given my advancing age and my declining health, as well as the dismal economy and the rapidly changing world of book publishing, it seems doubtful that I will ever be either—at least not back full time as a copyeditor or “back home” as a writer.
And, as sad as it may be, that’s the truth—from one of God’s “noble Bereans.”