Ask the copy desk

New York Times

Last week my friend James sent me a link to a New York Times piece from March 6, 2007: Talk to the Newsroom: Director of Copy Desks Merrill Perlman. I didn’t get to look at it until now, and wow, is it long—thirteen pages. Interesting, but long. And because it’s a series of Q&As, written over several days, somewhat a little bit repetitively repetitious. But for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like. I made it only halfway through, plus some skimming near the end, but I’ve also had only one cup of tea so far today; I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, however, I thought perhaps you’d like to know what the Times copy editors do all day.

People often look at me like I’m nuts when I say that some differences between newspaper and book style conventions (e.g., quotation marks vs. italics) are most likely the result of technological limitations in the wire service, so I was interested to see this:

As an aside, the advent of e-mail and Internet addresses has caused some confusion for material that is transmitted over wires, but not the Web. For example, many transmission protocols have called for the use of a symbol like @bt to signal the beginning of a transmission, and @et to signal the end. At the Times News Service, where I used to work, we were sometimes puzzled because stories we transmitted were cut off in the middle when they arrived at client newspapers. Turns out we had used one of those symbols in a story we transmitted—something akin to a story talking about the movie “E.T.” establishing an e-mail account “”—and the transmitter obeyed the @et. The Associated Press, which operates the means by which many other organizations transmit stories to one another, still has a list of “nontransmitting symbols” that need to be avoided in text lest they be mistaken for computer commands. Instead of “,” for example, stories sent via The A.P. are supposed to use “asktheeditors(at)” and someone—usually a copy editor—has to change (at) back to (@) before it appears in the local publication.

So there.

Go on, geek out.

Photo: new new york by sashamd; some rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Ask the copy desk

  1. OK, it took me a few days, but I geeked out on all of it. (I am a newspaper copy editor after all — DARE me not to read something!)

    Almost wish I hadn’t — every answer basically was “We’re the NYT and we say so” and, well, copy editors are supposed to believe in the economy of words. Even in the NYT. Did that really need to be 13 pages? (Yeah, I guess it did. It’s the NYT after all.)

    LOL, thanks for sharing that, India. Now I need to go put some drops in my eyes. :-P

  2. Yes, I, too, was disappointed by how many answers were basically, “As our style guide says . . . ,” but I suppose they have books to sell.

    I do so wish they’d publish the collected “Saints and Sinners,” or whatever it’s called (running out to lunch; don’t have time to look it up). I’ve seen a few issues of those, and they’re delightful.

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