This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). Atlantic senior copy editor Karen Ostergren walks us through her copyediting routine, and shares why copyediting is essential to our journalism.
There’s a moment in the recent film The Post when the reporters finish writing their first story about the Pentagon Papers and hand the draft to a copy editor; he immediately deletes the first sentence. I laughed out loud at this perfect misrepresentation of my job. Writers think I’m out to destroy their prose. Laypeople think I’m a human version of spellcheck. Neither is right.
Yes, copy editors are responsible for fixing the grammar and spelling in a piece, and that in itself is an important function. In a time when anyone can type out a few hundred words and post them online without a second thought, The Atlantic depends on its reputation for accuracy and integrity. If we can’t manage to get basics like spelling and grammar correct, why should readers trust that we’ve gotten our facts and analyses right?
But the responsibilities don’t stop there. The Atlantic’s copy editors think of our role as standing in for the reader. Before a magazine piece gets to the copy desk, it has gone through days or weeks or months of trimming, expanding, and rewriting with its main editor. It has ideally also been read by one or more of the magazine’s top editors to address any glaring holes. Our concern is thus: Would you, the reader, be able to pick up a copy of the magazine, open to the first page of a given article, and, without any prior knowledge or extra information, be able to understand what we mean to get across? Are any sentences so densely written that you’ll struggle to get through them? Will you be stopped by an excessive use of jargon? Conversely, are we explaining the subject in such dry or juvenile language that you’ll put the article down halfway through out of sheer boredom and frustration?