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RIFFS, Rants, Raves, Reflections

Cleaning Up Copy in 'Kissed'

May 06, 1999|KRISTEN WALBOLT and TRACY BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A "Kiss" is just amiss.

The great journalism movies--"The Front Page," "All the President's Men," "Absence of Malice"--are all about reporters. But finally, finally, "Never Been Kissed" delivers us Drew Barrymore, a copy editor. And we like Drew. We can imagine her character, Josie Geller, doing what we do.

So what is it we do? We write headlines, repair typos, seek out offensive language and libel, fix grammar and punctuation, and generally help reporters say what they mean, but better. We're the ones who keep an eye on the details, the things you don't notice until they're wrong.

When Josie straightens the nameplate on her office door, we could almost nod in understanding. Except that she has an office. With a door. And is that a receptionist she passes on the way in?

'Cause you know what? We don't even have nameplates. Heck, some of us don't have desks. So there's absolutely nowhere for that snarky assistant to sit. Someone to answer our calls? What calls?

Despite being a successful copy editor at 25, Josie dreams of being a reporter. (We think she's seen too many movies.) At a news meeting, anonymous Josie is assigned The Editor's Next Big Idea: going undercover as a high school student. (We're usually not even in the office yet while people with "executive" at the front of their titles conduct the news meetings.)

Josie is way too stoked to be afraid--and she seems to have forgotten how torturous 17 was the first time around.

Now, we know the most dangerous thing in any newsroom is an editor with an idea. That's how we got roped into writing this. But Josie is undaunted. That is so unlike us. In fact, that's why there are two names at the top of this. We hate to work alone.

Josie, apparently the newspaper's only copy editor, misses out on our version of pack journalism. We're not individuals. We are The Copy Desk. Fear us. Reporters do. We're the ones writing those really big words, the ones above the story. Admit it, sometimes the only ones you read.

As far as we could tell, Josie doesn't write headlines. She's given all day to edit one story, on paper no less. That computer on her desk? Apparently, it's a prop. How could she not automatically start shooting out headlines when assigned that septuplet story? (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seventh Heaven, Bevy of Babies, Oh Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby, Deliverance.)

And what's she doing there at 8:30 a.m. anyway? Nights, weekends, holidays: Copy editors toil in anonymity under the cover of night. We come in after the day's news is written, to put the paper to bed. (Who would want to leave a gig like this?)

We do what we do because we have no choice. One of us, as a second-grader, informed the Penny Patch farmers market in Jacksonville, Fla., that "cantaloupe" was misspelled on its sign. (I was not believed. I am still bitter.)

Yes, we like our big, red dictionary, almanac and thesaurus (isn't it funny there isn't a synonym for thesaurus?). See, words are fun. And our stylebook? Ahhh, our stylebook, a copy editor's best friend. That's why it upset us so to see Josie's ode to tidiness, her desk, devoid of reference material.

Oh wait, there they are: three or four lonely books relegated to a back shelf. We don't think so. She might know her malapropisms from her elbow and can spell "onomatopoeia" without having to look it up, but so what?

Where's the buzz in being on the winning side of the perennial that/which debate if you can't turn to Page 370 of "Words on Words" to put a finger on the right answer, your answer, and utter a triumphant "Aha!"

What good is it to be right if you don't get to say "Aha!"?

Which brings us to another of Josie's inaccurate quirks. When people misspeak, she corrects them. OUT LOUD. A true copy editor does it in her head. If a reporter tells us "I forgot to ask the spelling bee winner how to spell her name. Hopefully, it's right," we know he means "it is hoped."

We won't tell you what we hope.

And you might say you're nauseous, and even though it may be true, we know you mean nauseated.

So what did the filmmakers get right about copy editors?

* Josie can be awkward, geeky and clueless when it comes to social skills. Enough said.

* In her childhood bedroom hangs a spelling queen ribbon. (See cantaloupe, above.)

* She knows a lot about a lot. Though we're not buying the calculus whiz bit. Like most journalists, we went into the field to get away from math.

* Her humor is word-oriented, though often she's the only one laughing. (See above, need to work as a group. This ensures someone else will get the joke.)

* Josie's editor says she "is all about order and control and getting me my copy by 5." Order and control, yes. By 5? As if.

OK, let's recap. We wrote more on what was wrong than on what she got right. Isn't that just like us?

Tracy Boucher works on the Orange County copy desk. Kristen Walbolt is a news/copy editor for the National Edition.

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