what I learned from a magazine launch

I was excited to be asked to be copy editor for the premiere issue of a brand-new print magazine (title to be named later). Besides the fact it’s thrilling that people still believe in print enough to invest in it, it’s also a blast to be part of creating something from scratch. As a copy editor, your job on a magazine launch is to work with the designers and editors to institute a style guide: Where will we deviate from AP? How will we write bylines? Will subheads have periods? Will sidebars be indented? etc. Sounds boring, probably, but after years of adhering to style that others have established, it’s really fun to have a say in making the rules.

In any case, weeks of work culminated in a very long weekend before we sent the magazine to press yesterday. I thought I’d post some of the lessons learned (or reaffirmed) in the process.

AP is a godsend. If you didn’t have a baseline of style rules to follow, it would be easy to spend hours agonizing over how to write numbers, cities, etc. Plus when little things come up in the eleventh hour — should best-selling be hyphenated? — your strained brain doesn’t have to make the decision. Just pick up the book. (Answer: yes.)

Let little stuff go. It’s counterintuitive to a copy editor’s nature, but some things aren’t worth fighting for. In the wee hours of the morning, I found myself gearing up for a battle over which words in a sentence should be italicized for emphasis. Then I thought, “Is it OK both ways? Will the reader care? Is this worth a fight?” Yes, no and no. Time to move on.

Stay strong on the things that matter. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, holding up the works to give a piece another thorough read or make that one last correction. In my day-to-day life, I like to be accommodating. But when I get into copy-editing mode, I’m not afraid to fight for the time to make something right. I always regret it when I don’t. After all, I’m accountable for mistakes.

Copy editing makes you a better writer. I also wrote for the début issue, and it was instructive to read everybody else’s copy as it went through the editing process. What’s the tone? What structure are other writers using? How much background are they giving? When a story has to be cut, what parts do the editors chop first? I’m mostly happy with my stories this time, given the circumstances, but I know what I write for the mag in the future will be that much better.

There’s always next issue. Sure, I’d do things differently if I had another chance. Who knew the editor hates semi-colons? I wouldn’t have inserted so many. I wish I’d listened to my instincts on that last round of revisions. But one of the things I’ve always loved about journalism is that once an issue is done, you move on to the next. And don’t look back (except to blog about it, of course).

I’ll be sure to post a link when the magazine hits the streets. Just don’t tell me if you find a typo!

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