Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.


Dedicated to the memory of Gary Van Dusen.

A good copy editor is hard to find. If she’s a great copy editor, you never even know she’s been there. Instead of leaving tracks, she erases them, leaving a trail of words that’s easy for the reader to follow. She smooths the bumps in the road, removes the debris and paves the potholes. After a good copy editor is done, the reader has an open road ahead and can settle in for a pleasant ride.

I’ve had the good fortune to have known and worked with some great copy editors. I’ve worked with some great writers, too. But all writers need copy editors like pitchers need catchers. In the end, the pitcher gets the win, the save, the glory, but it’s the catcher who called the game. Behind a mask. Like a copy editor. The better either one does the job, the less you even know they are there. You don’t believe it? Name any of the seven catchers who caught a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. No cheating.

Copy editors come to mind because one of the great ones died recently. He and another great copy editor with whom I worked were both quiet, unassuming perfectionists dedicated to their craft. They never bragged about how they made a story better and were rarely credited with having done much of anything at all. They were viewed by many writers the same way factory managers view OSHA inspectors. Picky pains in the ass. But they saved a lot of asses.

Quiet and unassuming and avoiding the limelight are not in vogue now. We celebrate those who yell the loudest, who shout “Look at ME!” and it doesn’t matter if what they shout is true or not.

Yet the vast majority, the silent majority, if you will, are just that. People who are not on the front lines, putting themselves out there for the cause. They are going quietly about their lives as best they can, many doing good when no one is looking. And they don’t brag about it. But they are there. Like copy editors and catchers and supply chain managers and a million other jobs that go unnoticed, they do good work for the sake of doing the work and get little or no credit and often not much pay.

Poet John Milton, who lost his sight as an adult, concluded his sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” with this oft-cited line: 

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Many of us are blind to what is happening and it is good that the national dialog is opening eyes to the ills that surround us. But just because someone isn’t putting themselves out there doesn’t mean they are not doing good. 

The pandemic has made us more aware of the millions of “essential” workers we have taken for granted. Let’s hope that a lasting side effect of the Corona crisis is that we don’t forget them when the virus is beaten.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Below is a segment of the author’s rendering of a fictitious news story in the hands of a diligent copy editor.

One thought on “Lessons we can learn from the quiet and unassuming among us

  1. Katherine Polhamus says:

    Great article. I worked as an Editor and copy editor decades ago so I cringe when I see errors in print media, especially when they forget to negate a sentence and it changes the meaning. Does anyone copy edit anymore or does the responsibility rest solely with the writer?

    Liked by 1 person

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