Last week, the members of the American Copy Editors Society gathered in New Orleans to discuss — among other topics — headline writing, the hazards of redesign, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, and style standards for pornography.
Wait, what? Since the Last Word on Nothing credo encourages us to indulge our curiosity, I called Eric Althoff, organizer of the “Even Porn Needs Style” session at the ACES conference, to find out more. Althoff was a copy editor for Hustler from 2006 to 2010, after which he served a brief, presumably palate-cleansing stint at Brides. He now works as a freelance editor.
Why does pornography need copy editing?
People would always ask me, “Are there words in that magazine?” But any picture book or website that’s visually based, even if it’s a shopping catalog, has captions and descriptions. At the magazine, we not only had captions but also feature articles, departments, and columnists. There were 168 pages each month that needed copy editing — and nine times out of ten, you know, people can’t write their way out of a paper bag. That’s as true in the adult-entertainment industry as it is anywhere else.
Is it more true?
Well, I’m a little reluctant to say that, because as an editor I’ve come across so many bad writers all over the spectrum. We did have an internal style at the magazine where we used certain terms and colloquialisms that went against what was in the dictionary, so that sometimes required more work on our part. The biggest difference in the work, for me, was that in the adult-entertainment industry I really had to divorce myself from the content of the material.
Did you have any tricks for doing that?
I just tried my best to duck and cover, to stay out of the drama within the office and the conflicts among departments. I told myself that it was just a job — that I didn’t need to take it home with me or approve or disapprove of it. But eventually it did start to get to me, to affect my mood, and that’s why I left.
When I asked about the copy editing of pornography, I guess I was wondering about its more fundamental purpose. I mean, isn’t good grammar the last thing on a porn consumer’s mind?
[Laughs] Well, I heard the other day that one-third of all Internet traffic is now driven by adult material. That’s an enormous amount of bandwidth, and it all has words associated with it. And just from a user’s perspective, if you search for something and can’t find it because the terms are spelled incorrectly in the text, that’s going to interfere with your experience —and chances are it’s going drive you to another website. Better copy editing makes for a better user interface, and that makes for better business.
Readers can’t find their particular fetishes if they’re spelled wrong.
So how did you get the job at Hustler?
That’s a great story, and I never tire of telling it. I was living in Los Angeles in the summer of 2006, and I was sending my resume to any job listing for a copy editor or a writer. I saw a notice on Craigslist that said, “Copy editor needed. Some adult content.” That was literally the entire ad. No company name, nothing.
I sent my resume off, and a couple of days later I got a call from a recruiter. She told me that the company was located in the Flynt Building on Wilshire Boulevard, and that the name of the company was LFP. Well, I thought it must be some corner operation that just happened to be located in the Flynt Building. When I got to the 9th floor of the building and stepped out into the lobby, I saw a sign that said “Larry Flynt Publications, LFP.” For a second I thought I was on a reality TV show.
After the interview, on my way home, I called my girlfriend at the time and said, “Honey, you’ll never guess who I just had a job interview with.” And she was half excited and half horrified. She said, “Well, as a librarian, I’d say that arguably Larry Flynt took a bullet for the First Amendment. But as a feminist … oh my God, Eric!”
What kinds of copy questions did you have to deal with?
Well, of course every publication has its own internal style guide, and ours was more than hilarious. We had lists of euphemisms, paragraphs of them, for every body part you could think of. Phrases like cover girl, which in Webster’s are two words, were one word at Hustler. Blow job was blowjob. (See here for more examples.) And the style guide had been in progress since the 70s, so many things had changed over time. For instance, there was an entry under “Goddamnit” that said the expression was never to be used in a Flynt publication without editorial approval — which I thought was kind of strange, considering everything else that was okay. I was told that the rule was left over from Flynt’s brief born-again Christian phase in the 80s.
So what does the proliferation of amateur pornography — un-copyedited porn — mean for industry standards?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I do have some examples in my presentation, magazines I’ve never heard of, that have some really bad copy editing gaffes right on the covers. “Freckle-faced” without a hyphen. “See-through” spelled t-h-r-u. And “snapshots” as two words — maybe snap shots have something to do with a gun range? I have no idea.
What’s your message to the copy editors at the conference?
To be the best copy editor you can be, regardless of the material you’re working on. More people than ever before are writing, so there’s more content than there ever has been in the history of the world. Yes, the publishing industry is changing and will continue to change, but we’re still going to have words, and all of those words are going to need surgery from qualified professionals who really care about the proper way to put a sentence together. And that’s true in any field — even in the lascivious arts.
Top photo credit: iStockphoto.
Hat tip to Hillary Rosner for the title.