Introduction to Copy Editing: Interview with Professor Mike SpearWriter's Web
by Katie Branca

(printable version here)

About Professor Spear

Mike Spear has been a journalism professor at the University of Richmond for 29 years. He received his undergraduate degree in English at Guilford College and went on to study journalism at the University of North Carolina. Before becoming a professor, Spear worked for 22 years in newsrooms, 10 of which he spent at the copy desk.



Q: What do you think makes a good copy editor? A good copy editing student?

A: One of the things about copy editing that makes it tough for a lot of students is how attentive and how meticulous you have to be in editing copy, not only in hunting down all kinds of grammar, style and usage problems, but also reading the story and asking, “Does it make sense?” For example, oftentimes I'll give a crime story and say so-and-so was picked up and taken to jail after a robbery at a bank. But I'll never say in a story that this person has been charged and I'll expect the copy editing student to ask, “Well, the story says that this person was picked up after the bank robbery and taken to jail, but the story doesn't say what the charges are." So they're going to think through these things.

And that is really really difficult because most students, as good as they are (and most students who come here are very good students, I'll tell you that right up front), they've never been required to look at stories this way. It's a new experience. It helps to be anal retentive, in a born in the wool nit picker way, but you can develop it because I'm not a nit picker and I learned to do it, so it's a mind set.


Q: When you give students an editing assignment, how do you expect them to approach it? How many times do you think they should read it and what are you expecting they look for each time?

A: I want them to read through it without touching it one time just to get a sense of the story, and I'm not sure students do that even if you ask them to. I think your proclivity is to start looking for errors right away. It's nice to read through the story and see if it makes sense. Then you could go through it for a number of things. You could go through it for grammar, punctuation and style. You could go through it for spelling. You could go through it for meaning, all of these things. But, any editing assignment that I give, if a student doesn't go through it five or six times, I think he or she is in trouble. And I say five or six times over different times between assignments. For example, if I gave you a Thursday assignment on Tuesday, it's always a good idea to go through it at least once on Tuesday, maybe two or three times on Wednesday and maybe again once or twice on Thursday before you turn it in if you have the time. But, at the same time, get it off the computer after you've done two or three edits and look at it in hard copy, because you will see errors there that you didn't see on the computer screen.


Q: Where and when should students edit?

A: I think students should edit everything they do to develop their skills. I'm talking about even in email messaging.


Q: What have you noticed about students who are successful in your copy editing classes?

A: If they're successful in copy editing class, they're going to be successful in every class they take, and they're going to be successful in their internships and in the job world. I'm not saying that copy editing necessarily made them successful, but I'm sure it will always help because it helps you communicate. Copy editing by following prescriptive rules makes sure that you clearly say as well as you can what you're trying to say. And those are helpful devises.


Additional Thoughts

They used to say in the business, “Good reporters are a dime a dozen. Good copy editors are hard to find. Remember that.” I think that's still pretty much true. I think good reporters are easier to find than good copy editors.

If you're going to work at the top level with literate people, you need to know how to use the language properly and this course will teach you a lot about how to do that. I'm selling it for its utility.


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