With Twitter, it’s like I never left

This is the bonus extended edition of a column I wrote for the most recent newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. To learn about ACES and the upcoming conference in Philadelphia, go to http://www.copydesk.org.

There are several reasons I enjoyed going to work every day at a newspaper and felt good after the job was done. Making a difference, of course, was number one. Second was all the one-liners.

It is difficult for we previously employed, sized-down, made-redundant masses of journalists — we no longer are privy to the clever wordplay and mildly inappropriate humor that permeate newsrooms. This witty repartee reaches its fullness on copy desks, especially around 10 p.m. when most anything sounds funny.

But I miss that interplay less than I had feared. I have discovered that Twitter is the new office. It’s not the part of the office that gets things done, necessarily. But there is some of that, too.

In April, my employer of four years invited me to proceed in life without what former ACES president John McIntyre, late of the Baltimore Sun, calls “the surly bonds of employment.” I have been free of those bonds for eight months, and I may never go back.

I may never go back partly because it is unclear what I might go back to. Our ranks have been thinned considerably, with every indication that we are seeing a permanent realignment of newsrooms. There is no guarantee that there would be a recognizable desk to return to.

Beyond that, there is a feeling that I have done my time. I did good for more than a quarter century, stretching back to the Eppler Express junior high school newspaper. (“Eppler’s seven cheerleaders say cheerleading is hard work, but also a lot of fun.” I still remember my first lead on that double-bylined story.)

So now it’s time to move on. I’m not convinced the populace will get along without me. But perhaps I can find some new ways to make myself useful. For my first step, I successfully took over my wife’s office in the guest bedroom.

My “How to Be Laid Off” class taught me that many people who decide to work on their own find they miss the human interaction of a “real job.” But soon I found Twitter, which can be just as distracting as anybody I’ve ever worked with.

Twitter keeps me in touch with like-minded people around the world and in a newsroom near you. It seems perfectly suited to copy editor types, who are comfortable with the brevity imposed by Twitter’s 140-character limit and are never wont to go on about a topic anyway.

The personalities in the Twitterverse are as varied as those at the workstations of the copy desk. It is inhabited by some of those non-newsroom copy editors I’ve only recently been made aware existed. It’s great to go to work every day with freelancers, word lovers, new-media pontificators and some folks who are just plain good for a laugh. And, of course, it’s great to keep in touch with the newsrooms where, it’s heartening to know, there are professionals who still go to battle every day.

When I first signed up for Twitter, a friend told me she tries to follow a number of new people every day. I had assumed Twitter was all about getting people to follow you. But I discovered that, ego aside, Twitter’s strength is not about how many followers you accumulate, it’s about whom you follow. It is a marketing and networking tool for a freelancer, but it’s mainly a useful place to learn and connect. I follow people who might want to hire an editor, and I follow other journalists, work-at-home editors, educators, old friends, new friends, and just about anyone who is kind enough to follow me (except that Brit.ney person who keeps sending me links to her new pictures).

So now my office is filled with chatter, including banter similar to that found on newspaper copy desks — sometimes from people I worked with 10 and 20 years ago. I hear from frustrated editors sharing convoluted constructions and moaning about metro. I hear a lot about people’s children, although I’m never asked to buy wrapping paper for the marching band. One copy editor shares his front-page lineup and tweets about his bicycle ride into work. Another, a freelancer, recently donated a kidney and has been keeping her Twitter friends updated. I hear from industry veterans and newcomers and journalism school professors all wondering where newspapers are headed. And I hear from plenty of people who are wondering “is it that or which,” “when should you use presently,” and, my favorite, “can fish jump?”

It’s always good to feel useful.

Mark Allen is working as a freelance copy editor from his guest bedroom in Bexley, Ohio. He last worked for a daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, in the spring after spending the better part of his career at Michigan dailies. He offers daily tips on grammar, usage and style on Twitter under the name EditorMark. He will periodically be writing about the transition from the newsroom to freelancing for the ACES newsletter.


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