I’ve noted some confusion among my clients and acquaintances about what, exactly, copy editors do. Or rather, not confusion—full-on misconceptions. I think the hang-up here is that the average joe, even the average highly educated joe, is not aware of the distinctions between types of editing. People sometimes come to me because someone has suggested that their papers are problematic enough that they could use “a good editor,” but when I am serving as a copy editor, transformation (insofar as it is possible at all) is not a service I provide. Big changes are the game of the developmental editor. When I’m hired to copyedit, I just fix mistakes—pedestrian things like grammar and punctuation.
Here are two handy lists of thing your copy editor will and will not do, since the Internet appears to love everything in list form.*
Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do
1. Rethink your argument.
2. Suddenly make your paper brilliant.
3. Edit anything other than final drafts.
4. Deal adequately with last-minute changes.
5. Make major decisions for you.
6. Make things “perfect.”
When I’m hired to copyedit, I try to emphasize a couple of things to my clients. First, I should not receive anything other than your final draft. The sequence of changes I make when I read for copy errors matters (e.g, the first time a person is mentioned, one should use their first and last names). If you revise after I finalize, things get mixed up and it looks like I’ve done an idiot job. This is embarrassing and also runs counter to the point of hiring a copy editor in the first place. Second, no copy editor will ever make things “perfect.” We are humans. We make mistakes and omissions. Any meddling with a manuscript inevitably introduces a few new errors. Within publishing houses, copyedited manuscripts will often be sent to a second person for proofreading precisely because of this potential for human error.
Things Your Copy Editor Will Enthusiastically Do
1. Polish your language.
2. Edit for grammar, spelling, and clarity.
3. Take a relatively hands-off approach.
4. Format according to a specific style sheet.
5. Fix your citations.
6. Terminate minor but embarrassing mistakes with extreme prejudice.
So really what copy editors do is take your final draft, straighten it up, make it conform to a particular style, and move on. We save you from all those embarrassing red squiggles that the teacher covered your term papers with in high school, but not the C+ at the top. Folks who rewrite or even reimagine your output for you are different types of editors, whose roles we’ll take on in a future post.
*I sometimes worry that Cracked.com is completely eroding the globe’s ability to think nonlinear thoughts.