Every published author will tell you that a great copy editor is a gift from God, and have horror stories about those more in Satan’s camp. I’ve had both. Now that I’m busy with the editorial process, the importance of great copy editing has become even more apparent.
There’s a big range of capabilities different copy editors bring to their roles. Some are basically proofreaders, who concentrate on typos, spelling, punctuation, format screw-ups, like a bad break in the middle of a sentence, things that are objectively incorrect. But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for thoughtful interpretation. Especially for things like commas, colons, semi-colons, quote marks, dashes, and so on. These can have a big impact on style and meaning. The copy editor has to understand the author’s intent, their distinctive voice, to know how to properly suggest how these guideposts should be arranged.
Great copy editors also delve into grammar, usage, syntax, continuity, fact checking, historical accuracy, repetitive or poor word choice, character consistency, even unintended pejoratives – many of the things developmental editors also attend to. This means they have to have a good understanding of the author’s voice and style, not only to catch and correct tiny errors, but to maintain a clear understanding of the storyline itself. A gestalt on the work as a whole.
This is where copy editing is a fine art. It’s not their job to rewrite an author’s work. In fact, rewriting a sentence usually guarantees it’s in the copy editor’s style, not that of the author’s. Though sometimes the author doesn’t hear her own voice. She knows what she wants to say, and might think she is saying it, but it doesn’t always come out that way. The copy editor can help by questioning the author’s intent. “Did you mean for the reader to think x or y?”
A not-so-good copy editor is either someone who just misses too many goof-ups, or worse, one who conforms to strict definitions of formal rules. When I was in advertising, I sent some copy to a bigwig for approval. After checking for technical accuracy, he turned it over to his admin, who was a former English teacher. I got it back all marked up with a red pen. She took out all my contractions, re-attached the split infinitives, and after making sure there were no incomplete sentences, ganged them up into long paragraphs. Thus taking all the life out of the prose.
I thanked her for her help, and sent her a huge stack of long-form brochures asking her to apply her magic, and never heard from her again.
My favorite copy editors either come from journalism or advertising. Those professions teach you how to keep the writing from straying too far from acceptable standards, but also that style must be a flexible thing, who appreciate the whole and do not distort the author’s voice by fussing over irrelevant particulars, or imposing rules that were first established in the eighteenth century.
I work with a lot of beta readers who I ask to ignore typos and misspellings, hoping to keep their attention on the greater work. This is easy for me, since I’m the world’s worst proofreader. And utterly dependent on great copy editors, who are the lifeguards in the narrative stream.
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This is the newest of the blogs Chris has been posting sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His most recent Sam Acquillo mystery Tango Down is available on Amazon. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly firstname.lastname@example.org or Martin Shepard at email@example.com.