Demystifying Copyediting

Demystifying Copyediting


Ruth Goring
Ruth Goring

This summer Ruth Goring, of the University of Chicago Press, came to IVP to lead a copyediting workshop for some of our editorial staff. Ruth used to work in IVP’s editorial department some years ago, and she still does some freelance copyediting for us from time to time. According to our freelancer database, Ruth is “the best of the best”—if I ever write a book, I’ll happily give her as much of my advance as she wants to copyedit it.

It was a humbling time. I had the unsettling experience of seeing how much room there still is for improvement in a task I perform on a regular basis. As Ruth led us through the opening paragraphs of a manuscript, zeroing in on extraneous clauses with practiced precision and amending impossibly thorny sentences with a deft touch, I recalled (not for the first time) something I heard her say several years ago at a publishing conference:

“Copyediting is a test of everything you know, all at once.”

So it is. We tend to think of copyediting primarily in terms of the mechanics of grammar and house style, but it’s much more than that. The copyeditor also checks for logic, structural coherence, and factual accuracy. It’s the copyeditor’s job to read for clarity and cadence—elements that require an intuitive sixth sense that only develops over long years of reading and writing. And copyediting requires social and emotional intelligence too. The copyeditor must earn the trust of the author. Copyeditors may be only nameless, faceless entities to the author much of the time, but there are still many subtle but potent ways to gain or betray that trust. Amy Einsohn understates it considerably when she writes, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook,

“Query in a way that confuses or insults the author, and you are unlikely to obtain the cooperation you need to resolve the problem at hand.”

Different publishers mean slightly different things by “copyediting.” Here at IVP, copyediting comes after the developmental edit and before proofreading. We copyedit in Microsoft Word, tightening and smoothing as we go, and leave comments (or “queries”) where necessary via Word’s comment feature. Queries can be quite mundane, as in “Please cite this source,” or they can verge back into developmental territory when the copyeditor finds an unresolved structural or content issue. It’s a time-consuming, often grueling task, and as Ruth reminded me that morning, it’s nearly impossible to do it really well.

The truism “Everyone needs an editor” is more than a simple statement of fact. It is that, certainly: Even the best writers are blind to the places their prose falls flat or needs clarification. But it also gets at a deeper, human truth. It’s reflected Jesus’ admonition about planks and specks. Writers have things to say; they know things. Their eye is focused outward, on the world. It goes against the grain of human nature to turn that eye back inward, to the discrepancies or infelicities of their own minds.

How we respond when our writing is edited says a lot about us. I myself have a deep-seated aversion to the process of being edited, and often end up frustrated with my editors, squabbling with them over minutiae. I’m very reluctant to let go of what I’ve written, or to trust that anyone else could really get what I was going for and improve on it. In my own mind, my reaction to being edited comes largely from the fact that, by day, I’m an editor myself—I “know the rules,” and naturally hold other editors to a higher standard. But of course, even if I do know the rules, I still make sloppy mistakes in my writing all the time, and my ear isn’t nearly as unerring as I like to imagine.

This is true of developmental editing, too, but as a writer I find that it’s particularly difficult to submit to copyediting. Challenge my big ideas, and we can at least have a conversation about it, a rational debate about the validity of my argument or the merits of this or that structural element. But copyediting takes place on a more subjective, nebulous level. Why say it this way instead of that way? Is this extra clause really necessary? Does that word really do the job?

Copyeditors have to trust their own instincts, knowing that the author may well rear back in distaste at any one of their changes. And writers have to choose their battles wisely in return, knowing (hopefully) that they’ll often choose the wrong ones, blinded by their desire to appear clever or authoritative. It turns out that copyediting requires a great deal of trust and grace, from both the editor and the editee.

I love copyediting because it operates at the intersection of the whole messy process of writing. It teaches me that writing contains everything in the world: not just ideas, images, and injunctions, but human relationships, too: the give-and-take between writer and editor, as well as between writer and reader. Copyediting is a collaborative, imperfect process. Writer and editor move slowly together, not to perfect prose (alas, no such thing exists, except possibly in Willa Cather’s novels), but hopefully toward better prose.

And that’s a goal worth working toward.

One Reply to “Demystifying Copyediting”

  1. Thank you! I loved reading this post. I received feedback today from someone who thinks there is only one right way to say something, one tense to use, one length that’s effective. I loved that you described the dance between the writer and the copy editor and that in the end the writer gets to choose to make the revisions or not. We both want to achieve effective communication. How we get there is a negotiation.