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.

A Riddle, Wrapped in an Enigma, Wrapped in a Style Book: Exploring Style Sheets

A monk in a scriptorium. Medieval manuscript o...

A monk in a scriptorium. I could kill for a scriptorium. Editorium? Medieval manuscript of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today we’ll discuss a major tool in the copy editor’s arsenal—the style sheet.  I know it took me some time before I figured out what other people’s style sheets looked like (answer: they are diverse).  I’ll provide a few examples today for newbies who aren’t sure what they’re like and for others who have simply never gotten the courage to inquire.

Copy editors develop a record called a style sheet for nearly every project.  They use it to record stylistic choices they’ve made on ambiguous issues, so that the edit is made the same way every time.  People also commonly add rules from a style book (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) that they have a hard time remembering but know will come in handy.

In 2.52, Chicago states that “to ensure consistency, for each manuscript the editor must keep an alphabetical list of words or terms to be capitalized, italicized, hyphenated, spelled, or otherwise treated in any way unique to the manuscript.”  The manual provides a visual example in the form of fig. 2.3, which features, basically, an alphabetized list of terms as they should appear in the text.  For example, “Ungdom mot vold (rom)” indicates that instances of the foreign phrase “Ungdom mot vold,” though in a foreign language, should not be italicized.

My style sheets are less organized and economical.  Here’s an excerpt from my sheet for a project on Hinduism.
Month-day-year for dates (July 20, 1982)

Capitalize Raj.
Capitalize Ilbert Bill.
Quotation marks around Sanskrit passages in footnotes, if only to differentiate them from the translations that follow sometimes.  But don’t italicize.
Capitalize Purana.
Capitalize Vedanta.

There are also journal style sheets and house style sheets; these are more formal documents, distributed to copy editors working for a particular publishing house or on a particular journal.  Theoretically, they outline the ways in which the publisher has found it necessary to deviate from the preferred style book.  The journal style sheet for one prominent social science publication, for example, is seventeen pages long and covers issues such as the formatting of acknowledgment notes and hypothesis statements.  It states, counter to its guiding light CMoS, that editors should “use arabic numerals for 10 and above in text and titles” (the manual says 100 and above).

A book publisher for which I have taken an editing test sent me a twenty-five-page style sheet that included such dictums as “[Since we are] a secular and humanist/freethought publisher, [we] prefer BCE (Before the Common Era) to BC (Before Christ) and CE (Common Era) to AD (Anno Domini). These should be set in full caps following the year.”  Most of the sheet, however, contained basic grammar and style rules no different from normal careful usage (though enormously confusing to understand upon first reading).  Slogging through twenty-five pages of statements like “when a dependent clause is sandwiched between two main clauses, put a comma before the conjunction, after the conjunction, and after the dependent clause” is pretty stressful when all you want is to complete your editing test on time!

To Proof or Not to Proof

It used to be that when I asked people to correct my writing, I’d get confused about whether to ask them to “proofread” or “copyedit.”  No more!  Now that I’m in the publishing industry, I actually know the difference.

“Proofreading” is performed on proofs—in essence, the rehearsal round of a book or other manuscript that’s about to be published.  Proofs are already as perfect as you can make them, and physically resemble the finished product.  Proofreading is going through the text, line by line, to spot whatever small errors are left (or were introduced during typesetting).

Copyediting happens much earlier in the process, and involves checking writing for problems with clarity, grammar, style, and so on—in other words, cleaning up the writer’s final draft.  Generally, this process will generate queries that must be resolved with the author; proofreading, in contrast, rarely does.

Or, as the gentleman who taught my manuscript editing class, Erik Carlson, told us, proofreading can be done with music on.  Copyediting can’t.  These days I request that people copyedit my resume and cover letter.