To err is human, but the printed word is unforgiving, and that’s why everyone at PEOPLE depends on the copy room, our sanctum sanctorum of form and correctness. There, striving week after week to achieve the unachievable—a magazine totally free of mistakes—14 copy editors scrutinize every story down to the last semicolon, while six assistants direct a steady stream of text through the maze of the 29th floor. Other departments may misplace their modifiers and dangle their participles, but the copy room holds the line against inconsistency, awkwardness and muddle.
It’s the sort of task that goes unnoticed as long as it’s done well, so copy-room staffers have learned to labor in obscurity. “Our job isn’t to stand out,” says Copy Chief Sue Aitkin, a 16-year Time Inc. veteran. “It’s to make clear what the writer is trying to say.” Armed with an arsenal of reference books, copy editors attend to the nuances of grammar, spelling, punctuation and style: Should “thirteen” be “13”? Is “sitcom” one word or two? More important, PEOPLE’S copy people rescue the magazine from embarrassing gaffes. When a photo caption identifies New York’s late Cardinal Spellman as the president of the Dominican Republic—as one did just a few years ago—it is the copy room that spots the error and saves us all from ourselves.
Copy editors are the last people to see a story before it is transmitted to the magazine’s printing plants. Sometimes they work 17 hours at a stretch. “But they aren’t allowed to get fatigued,” says Assistant Managing Editor Jesse Birnbaum. “They’re the one safety net we have.”
That requires a staggering capacity for concentration and a passion for detail. And though PEOPLE’S copy editors come from all kinds of backgrounds (one is a published novelist, another is a part-time building inspector), they share “an appreciation for the power of words,” explains copy editor Dolores Alexander. They also know that, like the mills of the gods, they must grind exceedingly fine. “The pickier they are,” says Aitkin of her editors, “the better I like them.”
Not that their diligence makes them forbidding. During those long nights when the magazine is going to press, in fact, the copy room is a kind of town square. Weary writers drop by for coffee; reporters come in to borrow an Italian dictionary or a thesaurus. Sometimes good cheer gives way to heated debates about punctuation or the distinction between “infer” and “imply.” But that’s just part of the fun. “It’s those tiny details that captivate us,” says Aitkin. “There’s always something to chew over.”