Q&A with Tim Lynch on the teaching of copy editing

Tim Lynch is the senior media communications coordinator in the public affairs office at Cal Poly Pomona. Before changing careers this spring, he was the senior copy chief for the foreign and national desks at the Los Angeles Times, where he worked for nearly 20 years. He is the 2006 recipient of the Robinson Prize from the American Copy Editors Society.

Lynch is working on his master’s thesis at the University of Southern California and hopes to submit it — and graduate — this fall. He has taught copy editing at USC and Chapman University, and he has served as newspaper adviser at Cal Poly Pomona.

In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Lynch discusses his research into how editing is taught at five U.S. universities.

Q. What inspired you to examine how editing is taught at journalism schools?

A. In the past year it became apparent that editors — those who were not “content producers” — were the most at risk in newsroom staff reductions. Copy editors in particular appeared to be in the crosshairs. (At the L.A. Times, my former employer, copy editors have borne roughly the same share of cuts as the rest of the newsroom, but a perusal of Romenesko showed that the situation was worse in many other newsrooms.)

If copy editing is to remain relevant, those entering the profession must arrive with a range of skills much broader than those of their predecessors. I was curious to see how some of the better journalism schools were doing at preparing the next generation, and my master’s adviser at USC gave me the opportunity to find out via directed research.

Q. How did you conduct the study?

A. This study certainly does not qualify as definitive, quantitative research. I consider it more of a serious glance at five universities’ copy editing classes. I chose four programs known for copy editing: Missouri, North Carolina, Central Florida and Penn State. I included USC because that’s where I was studying, and I thought my findings might be of at least marginal value there.

I began by analyzing copy editing syllabuses, focusing on first-semester courses. I also e-mailed several questions to the professors and a separate set of questions to some of the most respected copy editors in the profession. My study consisted of a content analysis of the syllabuses, buttressed by the observations and opinions of the professors and professionals.

My goal was not to see which program was best, but to see how class time was allocated and which skills were taught. I tried to steer clear of value judgments, and I didn’t directly compare the syllabuses. Based on that analysis, complementary reading and my experiences in the newsroom, I drafted a new syllabus (Word .doc) for the teaching of copy editing.

My primary objective, though, was to join in the conversation about the future of copy editing. It’s a conversation that all copy editors who value their career should weigh in on.

Q. What were your major findings?

A. I think my biggest takeaway from the research was just how much traditional copy editing anchors the classes. Style/grammar/punctuation, print headlines and news literacy remain staples. I had expected a manic move toward digital skills. Those new skills are being incorporated, of course, but not at the pace I had assumed going into the research. This is a bit of a generality; some professors were moving with dispatch.

Q. What surprised you the most about what you found?

A. I was surprised at how much the programs varied in the time they dedicate to the teaching of copy editing, from 310 minutes a week at North Carolina to 110 minutes a week at USC. A good teacher can do more in less time, of course, but in general, quantity equals quality in the classroom, at least based on my experience both as a teacher and student.

I was also surprised about the wording in some of the syllabuses, which still characterized copy editing as a much-in-demand career. Those syllabuses need tempering.

Q. What recommendations do you have for instructors who teach editing?

A. I think this is a time for experimentation. I’m not recommending that teachers blow up their syllabuses, but I think they need to find out what’s going on in newsrooms and they need to reflect that environment even more in their classes. I also think they need to gear their classes for “content producers” as well as editors.

Based on my experiences as a teacher, I know that most students in my class were not planning careers in copy editing. Instead, they were either meeting a curriculum requirement or were hoping to hone their skills by becoming better self-editors. My new syllabus, which I grant is nontraditional, takes this constituency into account.