The Case of the Clueless Copy Editor

Wednesday morning couldn’t come fast enough. It was October 1987 and I was itching to experience the thrill of opening City Pages, a free weekly Minneapolis newspaper, and finding my very first byline.

My first published piece was a short one, only six paragraphs long, that recounted the story of Pat Anthony, a 48-year-old South African woman who gave birth to her daughter’s test-tube triplets. As the world’s first surrogate mother of her own grandchildren, Anthony signed a lucrative deal with The Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, which granted it exclusive rights to the story.

I was excited to see this particular story in print because the Minnesota Twins were in the thick of a pennant chase that would eventually culminate in their first World Series title. The confluence of these two seemingly disparate stories presented me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pull off a rare triple pun. Cackling at my cleverness, I closed the piece by comparing the “payoff birth of the triplets” with the “playoff berth of the Twins.”

Finally, Wednesday morning arrived and I tore downtown to pick up a City Pages. There it was on page three: All in the Family, my first professional article! I grinned like a fool reading through it, reveling in the joy of sharing this ultimate pun with the world.

I reached the end of the piece and, in the split-second it took to register that my brilliant triple play was missing, I was consumed with panic and horror. GAH! The editor had chopped off the last paragraph to make the story fit! I stared at the final paragraph in disbelief, desperately trying to will my triumphant masterstroke into existence. Finally, I walked off in a daze, sadder but wiser, my faith in the infallibility of editors a distant memory.


I wish I could say that this was the only time I was on the wrong end of an editorial snafu. But eleven years later, it was déjà vu all over again. I had written up brief Q&A’s with a handful of prominent Minnesota businesspeople about their love of golf for a Twin CIties business magazine.

Glenn Frey

I picked up a copy of the March issue hot off the press and headed over to a nearby food court to peruse it over a Blimpie’s turkey sub. The first few interviews looked fine but when I began reading Rick Born’s Q&A, I once again froze in horror.

I had asked Born, the CEO of Born Information Services, Inc., to share a memorable golfing experience. As part of his answer, he said, “I went out to Los Angeles and played with Glenn Frey and his manager at Bel Air Country Club.” I was confident that readers would recognize Frey as a member of the iconic rock band, the Eagles; but to make sure, I added “[from the Eagles]” after Frey’s name.

The moment I read what was actually printed was so surreal that I remember wondering if I was being pranked by Candid Camera. But no, the addition of one word by a clueless copyeditor had sent my world spinning out of control. The sentence now read: “I went out to Los Angeles and played with Glenn Frey [from the Philadelphia Eagles] and his manager at Bel Air Country Club.”

Deeply embarrassed, I called Rick and apologized for the gaffe. Fortunately, he had a sense of humor and enjoyed the image of a rock legend knocking heads on the football field. He told me not to worry, that he would be seeing Glenn again soon and that he was sure Glenn would get a kick out of it.

The moral of the story? If you don’t want your precious prose tampered with, stick to blogging. Otherwise, keep in mind that, as unlikely as it sounds, editors are people too. Besides, we all mistakes make.

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10 Responses to “The Case of the Clueless Copy Editor”

  1. Jason Miller Says:

    I feel your pain, man. One of my favorites happened to an article I wrote on indoor air quality several years ago. At one point, I summarized the philosophy to adopt: “Build it tight and ventilate it right.”

    The copy editor liked my quick, memorable phrase, I guess, because she turned it into a pull quote:

    “Build it right and ventilate it tight.”

    Sigh. Thanks. Thanks a lot. That’s … well, that’s just horrible, isn’t it?


  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    GAH!!!! That must have brought you to your knees, Jason! I’ve written about indoor air quality too and that would have been a kill shot!

  3. ArrVee Says:

    we all need affirmation about the little details we painstakingly make, subtle as they are (like your last line above), to express ourselves, especially with things we are passionate about or closely identify with. This extends beyond writing, into any hobby, work or mode of self-expression. It could be that secret ingredient we put in a dish that gives it that extra punch. It could be that tiny detail we put in a photograph that makes a big impact. Or it could be that small instrumental piece in a song that makes it so memorable.

    when people compliment us on our work, but could not pin down exactly what makes it great, we marvel at how a small detail could make all the difference.

    but when someone identifies exactly what it is that we did that made it great, we make a connection with that person.

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    I love your attention to detail and your fresh way of looking at things, ArrVee. You’re an excellent extrapolator!

  5. ArrVee Says:

    in a sense, we are also clueless copy editors, editing out on a daily basis the contributions of others which they gave of themselves, and which we missed out on due to various reasons. Sometimes, our differences in backgrounds made us fail to appreciate these contributions. Sometimes, our biases, prejudices and even self-centered-ness just got in the way. And oftentimes, we could also be taking these for granted simply because they have been there all our lives, selflessly given to us by our loved ones.

    these end up in our “cutting room floor”, and like that of the film industry, it is rich with interesting tidbits of information, and worth revisiting.

  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Well put, ArrVee. If we but heightened our awareness, oh, the treasures we would find around us!

  7. annie Says:

    that’s such a great story! i have spent just about 20 years as an editor/editorial assistant so your stories struck home. :::::smile:::::

  8. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Annie! Yep, sounds like you can relate!

  9. Paul Wiggins (@paulwiggins) Says:

    So, if I understand this correctly, you have encountered two editng errors in 11 years?

    btw ”my brilliant triple play was missing” is rarely an editing error. It’s generally the sign of an experienced journalist using the delete key. It’s why I have a spike on my desk.

  10. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Oh, if only that were true, Paul! No, those two incidents were just the most egregious. Yes, it’s certainly true that lopping off the “money shot” paragraph in a story isn’t an editing error in the traditional sense, but it certainly is an error in the sense that the editor was clueless for cutting it. An experienced journalist wouldn’t have done something so ridiculous.

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