What do copy editors look for?

by Gladys Terichow

I am a journalist – at this point a retired journalist—but I still see stories through the eyes of a journalist. The job of a journalist is to gather information, find key points that are relevant to the audience and find words and images that communicate this story in an honest and balanced way. Journalists are trained to keep the reader or the listener or the viewer in mind at all times. I found it helpful to have a reader in mind when I wrote stories for community newspapers and in later years for MCC. I used to think of my brother Jim, when I was writing stories. Are there words or abbreviations that he would not understand? If he and his friends were discussing this story during a coffee break, is there missing information that would help them understand the story or evoke emotion?

When I was invited to be the copy editor of the book, Along the Road to Freedom, I brought these skills to this job. By the end of the project my role had been revised to being one of the Editors. Several years before this book was published Ray Dirks, a well known Mennonite artist and manager of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, had been commissioned to portray the stories of 26 Mennonite women who brought their children out of the former Soviet Union to find peace and freedom in Canada. Before I got involved in the project a decision was made to publish a coffee-table book that would include the paintings and written stories. Each family could submit text up to a maximum of 2,500 words. I was invited to get these stories ready for publishing. 

My job was paying attention to ensure that dates of births, deaths and marriages were included and that geographic and historical facts were consistent, accurate and easily understood. I was also asked to improve the flow of the story, if necessary, and identify missing information. I grew up in a Mennonite home but I did not grow up hearing these stories so it was easy for me to read these stories as an outsider and identify information that was missing to help readers understand the geography and history. Adding maps and a family tree helped bring some clarification to complex stories of many migrations and blended families.

Getting historical and geographical information into writing is extremely important but when these stories were ready for proof reading it became clear to me that reflecting on a dramatic painting on one side of the page and then reading on the adjoining page a written story with small print text about migrations, births and marriages didn’t work well. The theme of resilience was weaved throughout these stories but the theme was lost. Another concern was that the sentences and paragraphs that sent shivers down my spine and brought me to tears were buried. There were also inconsistencies in the length of the stories. The paintings were equal among the families but the stories weren’t. I had worked with Wilma Derksen at MCC and asked her for her opinion. 

As we skimmed past the historical data and looked for paragraphs that evoked emotion, we had to bring out the Kleenex box. Maria’s story is similar to many:

“One night bandits arrived at the farm, wanting to speak to the landowner. Since her husband wasn’t there, they decided to shoot Maria. The whole family, except the youngest, was lined up against the wall. They had to stand at attention and the gun was pointed at Maria. Her two daughters, Mary and Frieda, cried and pleaded for her life. Eventually the bandits relented and the family fell on their knees thanking God for sparing their lives.”

Collectively, these precious gems buried in these stories share the experiences of losing husbands, the death of children, broken hearts, mental health, horrors of war, desire for family reunification, faith in God, hardships along the trip, resettlement, different ways of coping—singing, crocheting, gardening and more.

Wilma came with me to a committee meeting when we asked that the format of the book be changed to have a resilience quote and shiver quote on the page beside the painting and the longer stories in the back of the book. 

The committee agreed with us and the longer stories that contain so much valuable information for historians, families and others are in the back of the book. My concluding comment is the same as my first comment – get the geography and historical facts into writing but always keep the readers in mind. 

It was an inspiring project. It was inspirational to reflect on it again. The book is available at McNally Robinson, the Steinbach Heritage Village store and can be borrowed from the CommonWord bookstore at CMU. The price is $35.