What makes a good copy-editor?

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Copy-editing is an adventure the author takes you on

I recently spoke to students on a publishing degree about the roles of copy-editors and proofreaders. One of the topics we covered was how to become a copy-editor. And it’s an interesting question, because it touches on something I’ve been thinking about for a while – what makes a good copy-editor? Knowing your grammar, BSI mark-up and having an ‘eye for detail’ are obvious answers, but I also believe that there are certain qualities that a good copy-editor can try to practise – these will allow her to work with, not against, the author. I can think of four; let’s look at those.

      1. A good copy-editor accepts they don’t know it all
      2. A good copy-editor has a critical eye
      3. A good copy-editor knows when to step back
      4. A good copy-editor is a skilled negotiator and doesn’t take herself too seriously

A good copy-editor accepts they don’t know it all

One of the stereotypes that seem to have stuck to copy-editors is that when it comes to text, we think we’re always right. I’m not going to lie, it does feel good when my corrections and suggestions are accepted without question, but I’m also very, very aware that I.don’t.know.everything. I’ll always give the author the benefit of the doubt and ask if I got their meaning right.

I learned this valuable lesson when, after a few years as a scientific editor, I questioned a phrase I was unfamiliar with in a paper by a Very Eminent Author. Was this an idiom, I asked, or a typo, because I couldn’t find it in any of the dictionaries I checked? (I checked one. Or maybe two.) Fortunately for me, the VEA was also eminently kind and good-natured; he didn’t snark at me for questioning his use of his mother tongue, but kindly explained what the phrase meant. Of course, I then also found it in a third dictionary I looked up… (Fast forward: now I have no fewer than six dictionaries I use when copy-editing. Covering all my bases!)

Lesson – a good copy-editor never assumes she knows better than the author what it is the author wants to say.

A good copy-editor has a critical eye*

As copy-editors, we’re hired to look at a text from a fresh perspective, as another pair of eyes. Critical thinking and an enquiring mind are crucial, but it’s equally important not to overdo it on the questions to the author. You risk alienating them and when annoyed, they will be less likely to take to your more sensible suggestions. A good copy-editor will consider her audience and, even if not subject-matter expert herself, will ask herself, Will this statement sound OK to the intended reader?, before asking the author, What do you mean here? 

* This is about asking questions, not dishing out criticism.

A good copy-editor knows when to step back

Copy-editors exist in the background. Accept this and move on. There’s no reason to treat your author’s work as your own and force on them solutions that they may be uncomfortable with, for the sake of ‘correctness’, ‘rules’ or any other unhelpful slogans

At the end of the day, no matter how long a copy-editor has worked on an edit, writing the text has taken the author a lot more – hours of brainstorming, research, writing, re-writing, correcting. A copy-editor has nothing to be precious about. Really. If an author wants to make a grammatically challenged statement, by all means point it out politely and suggest alternatives, but don’t fight them on it. It’s their work.

A good copy-editor is a negotiator and doesn’t take herself too seriously

Lastly, we’ve come to perhaps the most surprising quality of a good copy-editor. Copy-editing, for the most part, is an art of negotiation: a copy-editor has her grammar and style books behind her, and an author has their ‘gut feeling’ and their own sense of style. And so it should be. Perhaps it’s their unique writing style that’s making them so interesting to their audience (or their commissioning editor!). A good copy-editor won’t make them temper or lose it. If you believe the author may be making a mistake, try to phrase your question in such a way that it doesn’t immediately make them want to scream ‘No! You’re wrong!’ at the page. Rather, a good copy-editor is curious and engages the author in a conversation. 

And this goes without saying, but speaking how we’d like to be spoken to goes a long way. It’s harder to convey subtleties of tone in writing than it is when speaking, and it may be better to address any sensitive or thornier questions over the phone or face to face.

Finally, a good copy-editor will take care of herself and won’t take herself too seriously. As one publisher friend of mine asked, aren’t copy-editors just frustrated writers who never got published themselves? Well, are we? :)

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