The Sun Also Writeth
Copy editor publishes nuggets of newsroom wisdom
Published: April 24, 2013
The Old Editor Says
John Early McIntyre
The Old Editor is an imposing man. As he walks into Nina’s, a small restaurant across the street from The Sun’s headquarters, the woman behind the counter says, “Hello, Mr. McIntyre. It’s been a while” with an air of deference. If his sartorial sense were prose, John Early McIntyre would probably find it too flowery: With a dark suit, a blue-striped bow tie, cuff links in the sleeves of his starched shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and a cane, he looks more like Gay Talese—the dapper don of New Journalists—than The Sun’s long-suffering, ink-stained copy editor.
As an undergraduate at Michigan State, McIntyre wanted to be a “writer of prose fiction” until he discovered he didn’t have the imagination for it. When Syracuse University offered him a fellowship to study English, he became an “18th-century man,” until he found out that “the demand for 18th-century men was not brisk,” as he puts it. When his first wife got a job in Cincinnati, he “bombarded the Cincinnati Enquirer with paper, hoping that they’d give me an interview if only to stop it,” he says. “And they hired me. And that was 33 years ago. I drifted accidentally into the place I was meant to be.”
In 1986, McIntyre came to Baltimore to work at The Sun, where he has worked as a copy editor, the copy desk chief, and the night content production editor, where he gained a reputation as the “death slot,” because “I have been in the slot on the nights that a number of prominent people have died close to deadline and we’ve had to scramble to get the stories,” he says. “Those are the nights you win your spurs on the copy desk.”
As a copy editor, it is McIntyre’s job to take a hard-eyed view of the world and of those who write about it. “All copy editors are deeply, deeply Augustinian,” he says. “We believe that every human being was born with the innate propensity to error. Properly understood, it leads to humility.”
McIntyre says he has a mental list of 20 to 30 mistakes, dating all the way back to Cincinnati, that occasionally keeps him awake at night.
“In the olden times—this will have to be explained to the children—a writer at a newspaper filed text that an assigning editor would go over and fix all manner of things and send it over to the copy desk. And the copy editor on the rim would find errors, send it to the slot editor, who would find errors and fix things, [and] who would print out a page-proof. And another copy editor would read it and find things,because you see things in print that you don’t see on the computer screen, and then it would be typeset. And, by God, some printer down in the composing room would see some howler that every other editor had missed.”
If all of this sounds horribly old-fashioned, it might be surprising to learn that McIntyre is a vigorous blogger—his language blog, You Don’t Say, is indispensable to anyone with a nerdy language bent—and his new book, The Old Editor Says (Apprentice House), was born of Twitter.
“I was occasionally just tweeting a maxim, either one of mine or out of the lore, and it occurred to me that I could make a little book out of it by having the tweets and a couple paragraphs of commentary on each,” he says.
You’ll find a gem like: “Giving a reporter a thesaurus is like giving a toddler a loaded handgun,” followed by three short explanatory paragraphs and, in this case, a haiku (“Proud reporter asks/ ‘Don’t you think it’s lyrical?’/ Shoot me in the head.”) Or this one, which he attributes to former Sun reporter (and current CP contributor) Rafael Alvarez: “Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.” Or, my favorite: “RTFP,” which McIntyre explains as “an exhortation to read one’s own publication, with an intensive added.”
The result is charming and lands somewhere in the family of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” or the revered usage guide The Elements of Style (usually referred to with the two authors’ names, Strunk and White), whose overly admiring proponents McIntyre often disses in his blog. “There are holy books, but Strunk and White is not one of them,” he says. “The AP Stylebook is not one of them. The Old Editor Says is not a sacred text.”
This may sound a bit strange coming from a man who has spent much of his working life worrying over the difference between “compared to” and “compared with.” But, McIntyre says, “A lot of the editing I’ve done over the past 30 years has been trivial, inconsequential, and even wrong-headed, following strictures that aren’t valid and distract people from establishing a level of accuracy and clarity that they would have the time to do [otherwise],” he says. “I don’t think when deadline comes and we finally go to press that we should be able to boast that we have a story that is grammatical and conforms to every dictate of the Associated Press Stylebook and yet is somehow shallow, superficial, and dull.”
One can see this stern humility in the very sparse pages of The Old Editor Says. (Upon seeing the book,, a City Paper colleague joked that McIntyre had simply eliminated all the unnecessary words.) But there is a deep respect for the traditions and the people in the field to go along with the skeptical awareness of their limitations.
McIntyre says that his work as an editor and a blogger has been largely ephemeral. Finding and training people as a hiring editor, he says, is his most lasting contribution to journalism. Which is also one of the reasons he loves working at Loyola (CP’s copy editor, Jenn Ladd—a former student of McIntyre’s—continues to be friendly with him), where he has taught a copy-editing class since 1995.
As it happens, Loyola is home to Apprentice House press, the only student-run book-publishing company in the country. When McIntyre began to think of putting together a collection of newsroom adages, he approached Kevin Atticks of Loyola’s communications department, who said the press would love to publish the book.
“The student who wound up as the production editor of the book coincidentally happened to be in my copy-editing class, which I think worried him,” McIntyre says. “And he caught some errors. Another former student read over the manuscript for Apprentice House and found some further errors and made corrections. Not all of them made it into the book. One of the readers of my blog filed a long list of—well, some were errors and some were things he thought were infelicities.”
But McIntyre is used to that. “It appears [that] nothing gives people as much innocent joy and pleasure as correcting an editor’s errors,” he says. “Some people write comments of the ‘haha, caught you!’ variety and some people just send discreet private messages saying ‘You might want to clean that up a little.’ And I appreciate both, because I’m an editor and I would expect to be corrected.”
Perhaps this joy in correcting an editor’s errors will ultimately help keep newspapers alive. “Verified, edited prose of interest to the reader is better than anything else,” McIntyre says before getting up, donning his hat, and walking across the room to chat with two colleagues from The Sun.
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