Tiffany’s has them, as do Costco, T. Rowe Price, Redbox and Vanguard. The government, the Mayo Clinic and this newspaper have them. Even the San Diego Zoo has them. And because of them, the information you get is much clearer.
They’re the people who celebrate National Grammar Day (today) and World Spelling Day (Wednesday) every day. Note that that’s not spelled everyday in this case; that’s the word to use as an adjective, as in, “Our everyday responsibility is to correct grammar and spelling.” And though their titles range from “proofreader” to “communications analyst” to “content coordinator,” the common duties they have are that of “editor.”
Their work shows up in print, on the Web, in social media, in annual reports, user manuals, consumer packages and in nearly everything you read. (They are perhaps most needed, and not used, for menus.)
The job of copy editor is often associated with newspapers, and indeed, many people in the editing profession began as newspaper copy editors. But as newspapers have cut copy editors, other organizations have kept them, or added them. The national group, the American Copy Editors Society (copydesk.org), began as a newspaper-based organization, but today only a quarter of its 1,000-plus members work for newspapers. When they gather for ACES’ annual conference in Las Vegas, from March 20-22, they’ll celebrate their diversity of background and tasks, which are all focused on the same thing: communicating.
Gretchen Kraft, copy desk manager for the Society for Human Resource Management, says: “Copy editors add value in nearly any professional environment. We bring fresh eyes and, often, a different perspective.” And, she says, “we care intensely about quality. We make everyone look better.”
For many, nothing is more satisfying than the great “catch.” Tom Paquin, a marketing editor of Ayres Associates, a national architectural and engineering company, notes that every editor at some point “will come across the word ‘public’ missing its ‘L.’ I always take a close look at that word, and it’s always satisfying to catch that error.” Natalie Ballard says that in her first week at one company, her co-workers contributed to a tip jar every time she caught something. “I don’t even know what I did,” she says. “I just know I made a lot of money with that tip jar!” More importantly, she says, “I save the company tens of thousands of dollars on a daily basis. Errors simply do not see print.”
Shana McNally literally saved her company millions. A corporate proofreader for Costco, she recalls, “I once caught a math error that would have resulted in a laptop being sold for $89 instead of $899.99.”
Sometimes, copy editors can even save lives. Amy Frushour Kelly says that while editing an operations and maintenance manual, “I came across an instruction advising the reader to operate a pump at 500psi, when the true recommended pressure was 50psi. If the manual had gone to print with those instructions, the operator’s arm would have been torn off. So I like to think of all the arms I’ve saved with my savvy copy editing.”
Another editor’s rule of thumb: Copy should not titillate unintentionally. Holly Ashworth, senior copy manager at Redbox, says: “It helps to have the mind of a 12-year-old boy, so you can catch innuendos that more respectable people don’t notice.” In the movie business, she says, clients often “want to use the phrase ‘happy ending’ on promotional materials. That one doesn’t make it past my desk.”
Debbie Andreen, an associate editor in the San Diego Zoo’s Global Marketing Department, will present a session at this year’s ACES conference called, “Even Gorillas Need Copy Editors.” Her job includes blog posts and promotional videos, and comes with some perks. “I insisted that I be present at one of our panda cub’s exams so I could write a blog about it,” she says. And when she wanted to record tiger cubs for a video, she not only got her footage, but also got to hold one.
“It was an experience that will stay with me all my days,” she says.
Merrill Perlman is a member of the American Copy Editors Society board and is president of its scholarship fund. She was an editor at The New York Times for 25 years.