Today’s commandment comes from Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook.
Copy editors do not develop or rewrite text; they make text clear and coherent. If the copy editor is confused by a text, readers will be, too. But the copy editor doesn’t assume the author’s meaning; the copy editor queries the author about ambiguities.
Queries should be framed in terms of what readers want, expect, or need. Along with the query, a good copy editor will offer suggestions for improvement.
As far as commandments go, this one is as easy as “thou shalt not murder.” (I’m not the only person who finds that particular Old Testament commandment easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, am I?) After all, a good copy edit by definition makes text clear, coherent, correct, and consistent.
Maintaining consistency throughout a text is a basic editing skill. The list of items to keep consistent is long and varied:
- capitalized words (Moon or moon, for example)
- numbers (when to use figures, when to use words, how to treat dates, times, etc.)
- abbreviations (when to use them, how to punctuate them, what articles to use with them)
- distinctive type (italics, roman, quotation marks, etc.)
- format (headings, lists, captions, tables, bibliographies, etc.)
- punctuation (open or closed style, use of serial comma)
- spelling (British vs. American vs. Canadian)
- hyphen use for compound nouns (policy making or policy-making)
- internal facts (what’s written on page 202 shouldn’t contradict what’s written on page 2)
Many writers don’t know how to treat different elements of content — or they’re too busy creating great content to care. The copy editor polishes text so that it’s ready for its close-up (i.e., publication!). The result can be transformative. It’s like the difference between you at home in your jammies and you ready for a hot date.
Hair, makeup, nails, and wardrobe for text: it’s what copy editors do.
There are two editing books that deserve space (not that they require much of it, being the pithy publications that they are) on every editor’s shelf: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Carol Fisher Saller’s Subversive Copy Editor.
Upon seeing The Subversive Copy Editor lying on our bed recently, my husband assumed that the book was a novel and asked me about it. Ha! No doubt Saller could tell many a story about her years with the Chicago Manual of Style, but TSCE is about, as the subtitle says, “how to negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues, and yourself.”
The first half of the book is about working with writers, and Saller stresses that editors must exhibit transparency, flexibility, and care when dealing with a writer’s work, and I couldn’t agree more. Transparency is about being upfront with writers and letting them know how and why your editing decisions are being made. Flexibility is about allowing the spirit of editing to rule the day instead of blindly following rules to the letter for the sake of, well, following rules to the letter. And showing care is obvious: excel as an editor by knowing your trade. Above all, obey the first law of editing, which is to introduce no errors into a text.
In a publishing world where copy editing is often done on the cheap and where text is riddled with errors, it’s a pleasure to read the wise, trenchant writing of Strunk, White, and Saller.
I attended an EAC networking event last night for students and new editors. I walked out of there with a lot to think about. I was heartened to meet so many bona fide (read: gainfully employed!) editors in so many different fields, and I was inspired to think of myself as an entrepreneur after speaking with editor Franklin Carter, who works in the corporate world. “Go where the money is,” he implored, and I’m heeding his advice. To be a freelance editor, not only do I need to hone my editing skills, but I need to study entrepreneurship, marketing, and sales.
Another interesting tidbit: I met several writers last night who do some editing but who consider themselves writers first. Stereotypically, this is often the case — writers do some editing to pay the bills. I’m a rarer bird: an editor first. I think of what I do as tending the garden for the gardener. The plot (pun intended) isn’t mine, and I didn’t do any of the planting, but while the gardener rests, I’m going to toil in the garden until it’s on the bloom, ready to fully experience. I think being an editor first, as opposed to being a writer, will bode well for me in a corporate environment.
It occurs to me that becoming work-ready is a journey consisting of a series of steps taking me closer and closer to my target. In the beginning, I was getting ready for a car trip, packing up what I had on hand. I soon reached the highway, and it wasn’t long before I could see the upcoming city lights. I circled the city outskirts for a bit, wanting to embrace it all, before realizing that if I didn’t take an exit, I wasn’t going to experience anything. Now I’m heading into a new-to-me neighbourhood where I’m hoping to find my peeps. I’m sure there will be some dead ends, some one-ways that will mess me up, some new acquaintances that won’t last. But I’m in the ‘hood, and I’m ready to take care of business.