Wing-ercizing, copy editing. It’s all the same…

When eaglets reach a certain age, they begin to “wing-ercize,” hopping about with wings widespread. One day they catch a little draft and they’re hovering. It’s not long before one of those hovers propels them onto a nearby branch. The next thing you know, they fly into the world as juvenile eagles. There’s no more gazing from the nest watching as mom and dad soar. They’re out there with them.

So when I tuned in recently to the eagle cam at Shepherdstown, WV, and found nothing but a nest and no birds, I wasn’t surprised.  It was their time to fly and join the eagle world. They had caught the right updraft at the right time, giving flight to their fancy.

It reminded me of something. Me.

With degree in hand, I fell into the real world as a copy editor at my local newspaper. Not the glamorous, status-enhancing job I had in mind as I put the finishing touches on my master’s thesis. Certainly not the kind of salary I’d hoped for. But it was work, there was a paycheck, and I could live at home and save money.  Mostly, though, like those eaglets, I keenly felt the need to get on with the “doing” things and leave the watching things and practicing things behind. Enough of the wing-ercizing – or in my case, school-ercizing – I itched to DO. It was time.

Seven years passed. I managed to move up into the lower management ranks – from copy editor to news editor in charge of the copy desk, which also moved me up the pay scale. Once again, like those eaglets, I was “wing-ercizing” while perched on the edge of my copy desk nest, my gaze fixed on new horizons. One day I caught an updraft and took off.

That was slightly more than 30 years ago. And today, I realized something, thanks in part to my eagle fascination and in part to a CNN commentary by Merrill Perlman. My first job as a lowly copy editor (and believe me, I had fears of being a failure because I took a low-paying, entry-level job) was amazingly effective wing-ercizing for my life. (Not to mention it was probably the most important job at the paper, too).

Consider: copy editors fix the factual error, the spelling goof, the grammatical faux pas, the double-barreled headline that says one thing but means another, the story that doesn’t quite flow correctly, the photograph that’s just a bit off. You might say they make sure the substance equals what’s advertised – that what’s said or written or pictured rings with authenticity.

Isn’t that like having your own life copy editor? I think so.

Those seven years taught me to value clarity, to say what I mean, to make sure there’s substance behind the words. It helped me learn to acknowledge mistakes and be polite, to listen to others’ stories and value them instead of writing them off if different from me. It showed me that we all get hurried sometimes, and we don’t always fully grasp what we mean or say or think or do or even value.

Sometimes we get lazy and don’t check our facts, or we parrot what we’re told instead of speak what we truly know to be true and real – for us. Sometimes we go off half-cocked without thinking for ourselves.

But a good copy editor catches and fixes before releasing. At least, we hope they’re on the job. If they’re not, we’re in trouble.

I rather like this concept of having a personal copy editor. Call it what you will: Common sense, perhaps. The conscience. A moral compass, spiritual or otherwise. Ethics, integrity, values. A North Star.

Reporters may dispute the value of a copy editor, who “slows things down” from the immediacy of action. So will the designers, the web mavens, and the photographers. After all, they are responsible for seeking and compiling the content through their writing, photographic, web, and design skills. Filtering their output through a copy editor feels superfluous.

As Perlman points out, though, without a copy editor some of the most respected among us look stupid. Like Romney with his “Amercia” instead of America, or CNN with its occasional nonsensical online ticker, or any newspaper that’s had to print a correction. (My favorite from my past? Assuring readers the paper meant to print the team’s correct name – “War Hawks” – instead of what it actually printed – “Wart Hogs.” Go, Wart Hogs! Hakuna Matata!)

So I suggest we let the notion of a copy editor be a part of our wing-ercizing as we move from one stage to another throughout our lives. You know, maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with my eaglets all of a sudden. I think I’ve been wing-ercizing, just like them, as I peer over the edge of the nest at what’s up next. I think I’ve hovered a couple of times and, you know what? It’s exciting.

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