Six Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do (and a Few More They’d Love To)

copy cat

Copy cat. (Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

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.

So You Want to Hire an Editor: A Guide to Pleasant Relations

So you want to hire an editor?  Great!  Give us all your money!

But before you do, make it a rewarding experience on both ends by carefully considering, and communicating, what you want him or her to do.  From traumas and pratfalls of various sorts, I’ve gleaned some wisdom about the process.  In early e-mails, I suggest you do the following:

1. Carefully describe what you (or your advisor, or your publisher) want done.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  The range of what clients want—from virtual ghostwriting to shallow grammar checks—would amaze you.  Delineating your expectations will save you much potential conflict and/or disappointment.

2. Explain the scope of the project.  Don’t engage an editor for a single chapter, then keep sending him surprise additions.  This will not go well for you, and it will be even worse on the editor’s end.  This includes things that might happen (as in, “I’m not sure I can finish the introduction in time, but I might send it along just before the deadline”).

3. Explain the project’s audience.  Writing for your dissertation committee differs substantially from writing for a journal (despite rumors to the contrary, judging by the number of unedited chapters sent to academic journals).  And both differ drastically from undergraduate textbooks, scholarly books, works for the general public, and so on.  The nationality of your expected audience, if you already know your venue, can also make a big difference.

4. Point out your weaknesses.  This can be hard to admit at times, but better to ‘fess up from the beginning than to surprise your editor.  She will respect you more.  And be nicer about correcting consistent problems if she knows you’re nervous.

5. Set explicit deadlines.  If you just airily say, “Whenever!”, you will be taken advantage of.  We editors are busy people, and we receive enough urgent projects that you will be put on the back burner.  Also, a clear deadline makes it far easier for the editor to plan (her work, her life, her whatever).

There’s enough confusion in the world.  We editors don’t like confusion.  That’s why we edit it away.  Help us help you!

The Dreaded Postedit Discussion

Skype Technologies S.A. logo

Skype Technologies S.A. logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Butterflies in your stomach about facing your client (or, from the other direction, your editor)?  Here’s a secret: use Skype.  Files these days are usually swapped by e-mail, but this is worth the extra time.  One of my clients introduced me to the wonders of discussing writing over Skype, and it’s a really terrific tool.  Aside from being reasonably easy, and free, it allows both sides to avoid ruffled feathers thanks its restoration of two old-fashioned aspects of communication: tone of voice and facial expression.  But here’s the best part: you can share screens!  That saves a lot of time when you’re discussing the details of a long, complicated manuscript.