The Copy Editor (Anonymous)
Posted: 12/20/06

My first question may also be the one that’s most useful to readers, so take your time. What is it, exactly, that you do?


The job basically is: ensuring that the text of all books and promotional copy is grammatically and syntactically correct (within the bounds of readability) and consistently styled, and that misspellings and errors are corrected. We may also point out a stylistically awkward sentence or logical inconsistency. In fiction, such details as characters’ names, principal characteristics, and clothing at any given time need to be tracked, and contradictions in time sequence and lapses in narrative logic noted. In nonfiction works, we do as much checking and research as is feasible to ensure factual accuracy. (In novels, too!)


To me the overriding purpose of copy editing is to contribute to the clarity and readability of the text. All the questions and suggestions, and the fussing about punctuation and grammar and even the way things are spelled should be in the service of that. It's important for things to be correct, but it's even more important that the reader not be distracted. To that end even consistency in spelling plays a part.



I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about all that! What about your job puts a skip in your step?


There's more plodding than skipping involved in copy editing, but you can always elicit a smile from a copy editor by expressing appreciation of her work, either generally or specifically. Sometimes we feel like hockey goalies, noticed only for the things we didn't do or didn't catch. Also, a well-written and/or amusing work, short (picture book) or long, makes the day go by faster.



What do you fret over after you’ve left work?


I’d say more some sort of interpersonal friction rather than the work problem itself. Also the threat of some heavy-duty job coming down the pike or a potential change in work procedures. (I hate change.)



I hate change, too. So I guess we’re practically sisters! Your job requires that you always look for what's wrong. Does that approach creep into your personal life as well?


No, because if you're a copy editor, you have that mind-set anyway. A story my mate likes to tell about me: There was a T-shirt that read: "Does Anal Retentive Have a Hyphen?" My response to that was: "It depends on whether it's used as a noun or an adjective."



Good one! Do you ever read for pleasure or has that lost its luster?


No, this work has never affected my ability to read with pleasure. It does, however, make you a bore while dining out with others, because you can't resist pointing out all the funny mistakes in the menu.



What's your idea of a perfect work day?


An ideal workday (one word, Web 11) would be one in which I don't get bogged down in a particular project, everyone greets my suggestions with glad cries, and I do a reasonable amount of work without an undue amount of strain.



(Crying out, gladly) Thanks for catching that mistake for me! How would you describe the writer from H-E-double toothpicks?


That's an easy one. The writer who challenges almost every correction or change proposed, not considering the suggestions on their own merits but taking them personally as reflections on his or her competence. To me this kind of resistance stems not from self-assurance but its opposite.

Incidentally, your spelling of “work day” is perfectly acceptable, at least to me; it’s just that most copy editors adhere to Webster’s Eleventh (College Dictionary) in matters of spelling, and that sacred text has decreed that “workday” is one word. (It’s a relatively recent spelling, though.) There are times I differ with Webster’s, but that’s a topic for another time.



Many writers – I swear I’m not one of them! – think copy editors are frustrated writers. Why do you think that is?


I think the writers who hold this view tend to be super-sensitive to what they see as criticism. Occasionally a copy editor will overreach, but I think the cause is over-conscientiousness rather than frustrated creative urges. There isn't a whole lot of creative satisfaction in rewriting other people's sentences.


This attitude may also be rooted in a misunderstanding about the purpose of some changes: sometimes a proposed change is intended to be suggestive of a problem rather than an attempt to impose one's own prose on the author.



Now that you've finished this grueling e-interview, what are you going to do next?


Go back to harassing authors and editors.



Admit it. This interview has been fun, hasn’t it?


Yes, surprisingly it was fun answering the questions. I say "surprisingly" because the terms "copy editing" and "fun" don't ordinarily occupy the same mental frame. (At least for this copy editor.)

Christine Kole MacLean ( writes picture books, chapter books, and novels for young adults. Her most recent release is a young adult novel, How It’s Done.