Learning to Write: Six Months on a Copy Desk With Demonic Standards

By Richard Babcock

I think I started to learn to write—you never really stop learning—when I spent six months on the copy desk of The Record, a mid-sized newspaper in northern New Jersey. I landed a reporting job at the paper on the strength of my law degree—I’d never studied or practiced journalism, I just thought it sounded more fun than reading contracts. After six months covering a little New Jersey town, I got rotated through the copy desk, the regular procedure for rookies.

The Record was an afternoon paper, so the prime copy desk hours fell from midnight to 8 a.m. The seating arrangement resembled a huge donut with a sour copy chief sitting in the hole, doling out stories (this was long before computers). The Record believed in strong editing, and the chief, who could span a page of copy in the time it took to take a nervous sip of your coffee, held to demonic standards. Stories came back over and over, dripping with his contempt at your ineptitude.

Under that happy regime, I learned to scrutinize every sentence, every word—is this as clear as it can be? Is the language efficient? Can it be said with more energy? More wit? Has anyone ever said it this way before? I came to realize that nothing written is sacred. Improvement is everything.

I rotated off the copy desk in six months, thank God. I don’t think I could have withstood another week of tucking in at 8:30 in the morning, and, more to the point, the rigor of copy editing was narrowing me, I thought. I was too focused down. I needed to get out and let my imagination roam.

That six-month stretch taught me a discipline that has remained. And a lesson, I’ve often repeated: God is in the rewrite.

Richard Babcock was a top editor at New York magazine for more than a decade and served as editor-in-chief of Chicago magazine for 20 years. He is currently teaching writing with his wife, Gioia Diliberto, at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
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From Jack Limpert: I’ve asked about a dozen journalists the “How Did You Learn to Write?” question and will post their answers in the coming weeks. If you have a story to tell about how you learned to write, send it to [email protected] along with a line or two about your writing background.

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