In praise of copy editors

There are basic services that are such a common part of our modern American lives that we don’t realize what a miracle they are — sewer systems, clean running water, electricity.

And copy editing.

I’ve been working on a freelance project this week helping a friend self-publish a memoir by his late father. It’s an enjoyable assignment, both because it’s an interesting story (refugee from Nazi Germany who ended up in the Philippines under Japanese occupation), and because it moves me down the road in my education about self-publishing.

But before I even get to the self-publishing part, there’s the editing part. I’m working my way through the manuscript, smoothing out narrative flow and awkward sentences and fixing grammatical errors and typos.

And realizing how much I take copy editors for granted.

At newspapers and books, there are generally two stages of editing. First comes the substantive editing — when the assigning editor reads through the piece and points out gaps, ramblings, lead paragraphs that don’t work, unsubstantiated claims, and other broad problems. Then comes copy editing, a completely different job that involves a detailed eye for things like grammar, spelling, and inconsistencies.

I’ve always been a clean writer who doesn’t make a lot of grammatical or spelling errors. You’ve probably noticed that from reading this blog. (Or maybe you haven’t. People don’t notice grammar and spelling when they’re correct, only when they’re wrong.)

There are lots of grammatical rules — like the proper use of “that” versus “which” — that I know without even stopping to think. (Rules that I know, not which I know!)

But even so, there are lots that I don’t know. And I’ve never had to learn them, because I’ve always had copy editors to back me up.

  • What’s the rule about the next-to-last item in a string of nouns, adjectives, or verbs — comma or no comma? Different media have different rules; don’t sweat it; the copy editor will do whatever is right.
  • Do I use numerals or words for writing about seventy-six trombones? 101 dalmatians? Ten thousand men of Harvard? Not to worry; the copy editor will fix it if I’m wrong.
  • Do FDR and JFK get periods after each of their letters? What about USA? CIA? LSD? (Uh oh, I’m about to burst into that song from Hair. And come to think of it, should Hair be italicized or placed in quotation marks?)

Well, suddenly there’s no copy editor watching my back. I need to figure this stuff out. So I went to the library and borrowed a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is 921 pages long but a lot less intuitive and user-friendly than I’d like it to be.

I can find the answers. But it’s nowhere near as efficient as working with a pro copy editor, who knows all of this off the top of her/his head.

Copy editing is a different skill set from writing. I can do it — but like electricity, sewage and water, it sure is nice when there are trained professionals to take care of it for me.

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6 Responses to “In praise of copy editors”

  1. Tom Moore Says:

    my two cents: this rule about “that” and “which” is completely specious, as you can tell by the fact that when you are talking about people there is no possibility of choice – it’s all who.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      The that-which rule certainly won’t save or destroy civilization. But having learned it, I now enjoy seeing things in their right place. Like lining up all the cooking pans over our stove in the same direction. :-)

  2. Nicholas Says:

    Having never had a professional copyeditor, your piece makes me really appreciate how wonderful having one could be.

  3. Susan Says:

    To anyone interested in the musing of one of the county’s foremost copy editors, I recommend “You Don’t Say” http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ by John McIntyre, “mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper”. (Yes, he says, the punctuation can go outside of the quote marks — surprised the heck out of me.)

  4. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    re the last post: you and me both. I’ve been masquerading as a copy editor for decades now. It’s a pain in the tail, because of the rules I don’t in fact know–I just have a pretty good ear.

    –And a shelf full of style manuals: Chicago, AP–and first & foremost, Strunk & White.

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