What copyediting is, and what it isn’t

Image: a snippet of the (excellent) copyedit for my forthcoming book.

Over the last six months, I’ve had several pieces of writing go through the copyediting process: a few papers, and one book.  Over my career, I’ve seen closer to 100 pieces of writing through copyedits.  It’s a stage of publication that was, for a long time, rather mysterious to me, but contrasting two of my recent experiences provides a pretty good illustration of what good copyediting is, and what good copyediting very definitely isn’t.

(I should pause and say that I’m figuring out both good and bad copyediting by experiencing it.  I’m not a copyeditor and I have no training in copyediting.  I’d love to see an actual copyeditor – or several – weigh in, in the Replies.)

First, good copyediting.  I’ve just returned the copyedits for my forthcoming book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  I couldn’t have been happier with the process, which was was like being invited to a conversation about what I was trying to accomplish in the book, and how changes to my language could help me accomplish it.  A good copyeditor finds spelling* and grammatical errors, of course, but there’s much more to it than that.  A good copyeditor suggests changes to make meaning clearer.  They work to align a manuscript with the publisher’s style, and while that may not sound like an interesting thing (or like a good thing) it has the huge virtue of achieving consistency in things like punctuation, capitalization, and citation styles**.  These seem like minor things, but it’s annoying when they’re inconsistent – and there are enough complications that I’d changed my practice multiple times in multiple ways over a couple of years of writing.  A good copyeditor finds factual errors, and also what I’d call “continuity errors” – inconsistency in content or perspective between passages that may have been written months or years apart.  My superb copyeditor did all of these things, and I’m grateful.

Copyediting varies enormously among publishers – and especially, I’ve found, among journals.  Some journals do very little; some do a lot; and one recent case demonstrated with great clarity just how awful bad copyediting could be.  I won’t identify the paper or the journal here; but suffice it to say it’s a journal that shouldn’t expect to see more manuscripts from me any time soon.  Here are some things that happened in that copyedit.  The bad copyedit made changes to the text that:

  • introduced grammatical errors (yes, really)
  • introduced typographical errors (for example, missing or extra spaces caused by careless deletions of words, or misspellings caused by sloppy changes to verb tense and so on).
  • changed the meaning of what we wrote (not just subtly!), sometimes by substituting words that aren’t actually synonymous, sometimes by tinkering with technical words and phrases, and sometimes by rewriting entire sentences to leave something quite different than we started with.
  • produced text with meaning unclear. (If you think this sounds like a copyeditor working backwards, you’re exactly right.)
  • removed information that was necessary for reader understanding. (In one startling case, the copyeditor removed an entire sentence with the marginal comment “All our journal’s readers understand this”.  Maybe – but only if there was zero overlap the journal’s readers and its peer reviewers.  We’d added the sentence in question to clarify something a reviewer had misunderstood!)
  • flattened authorial voice without improvement in clarity. (Alignment with the publisher’s stylistic conventions is one thing.  But a copyeditor shouldn’t replace the author’s stylistic preferences with their own, or remove touches that give authors identifiable voices).

I’m pretty sure a professional copyeditor should never do any of these things.  It took us several days of intensive work to repair the damage done – or at least, to repair most of it.

What’s odd about our bad-copyediting experience is that it resulted from a copyeditor overediting rather than underediting.  I understand underediting: many journals do little, if any, copyediting, no doubt because good copyediting is expensive.  Something is lost as a result; but since my grants struggle to pay the costs of publication*** I guess I can make my reluctant peace with the fact that nobody but me will catch my mistakes.  But overediting is just strange.  Surely bad copyediting is expensive too?   It took someone a very long time to mess our manuscript up as badly as they did, and that must have cost the journal money.  Ugh.

Lest I leave you with the impression of a cantankerous old fogey fighting any attempt to meddle with his gleaming prose, let me assure you that I couldn’t disagree more with the novelist Anne Rice.  Rice once wrote:

“I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself.  I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.” (quoted in the New York Times)

That stance is mindboggling in its foolishness.  A good editor (and a good copyeditor) will always be an author’s great friend.  Yes, we got a horrible mauling from a bad copyeditor; but stuff happens.  MacArthur Park is a dreadful song, but I’m not going to stop listening to music.

© Stephen Heard  July 23, 2019


*^As a Canadian, I use a weird and idiosyncratic mix of British and American spellings.  I insist on colour and honour, but I analyze rather than analyse; and I use amongst while avoiding whilst.  My book is with Yale University Press, and so will have American spellings and usage. I learned a few new ones from the copyediting process.

**^Is it email, e-mail, E-mail, or something else altogether?  It may not matter much – but the one thing it shouldn’t be is all three in a single document.

***^And will struggle more as we publish more things open-access.  This observation, of course, will cue fevered protests from True Believers who are convinced that publishing needn’t cost anything.  There are many, many reasons that’s wrong.

12 thoughts on “What copyediting is, and what it isn’t

  1. Perlkonig

    I’m so glad to hear your one objectively terrible editing experience didn’t sour you, as it does many. Good editors live by the maxim “First do no harm.”

    I am a professional in-house editor for a government regulator, and my goal is simply to help the author (usually a highly technical person who doesn’t write often for broader audiences) produce the best possible document. I ask a lot of questions and seek to understand what they’re trying to say, and then I help them say that in the clearest way possible.

    An editor advocates for the reader. I encourage the writer to think about who that person is and is *not* and to imagine how their writing will be received and how they might make that reception more positive. In an organizational setting, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the ultimate audience and instead just write for your manager and whoever else needs to approve the document to get it over with.

    The Editors’ Association of Canada (https://www.editors.ca/) is a nationwide organization of professional editors. Not only is it a great place to find high-quality editors (https://www.editors.ca/hire-editor-0), it also maintains the “Professional Editorial Standards” (https://www.editors.ca/node/11696), which lays out the different types of editing and what you can expect from such editors.

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    1. Gael Spivak

      Past president of the Editors’ Association of Canada here. And I was just about to say pretty much what Perlkonig said. I will add that you can find Canadian definitions of editing (including copy editing) on our website: https://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions-editorial-skills.

      As for “email,” it is spelt that way, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. It used to be e-mail but like many compound words that were once new, it morphed over time from “electronic mail” to “e-mail” to “email.”

      I’m a writer as well as an editor. I’ve experienced good and bad editing. The good editing is just as you describe. A good editor helps you say what you meant to say, and in your voice. It’s a partnership. Bad editing feels assaulting, especially if the editor changes things for no good reason (or makes things worse) or imposes their own tastes. Or writes rude queries to the writer.

      I’m glad you’ve had some good editing experiences!

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  2. CS Nicchitta

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of copyediting. I’m a freelance copyeditor. I also worked in-house as a project editor and managing editor in book publishing earlier in my career. I think your description of the tasks involved and the benefits of good copyediting are spot-on. I had an author tell me once that copyeditors were “the conscience of the industry,” which seems about right. The bad experience sounds awful. You are correct that some publishers invest in good copyediting (and supervising of that copyediting), but many don’t. Most of them also pay less now than they did ten or even twenty years ago. It’s not a great state of affairs for authors or editors, and I’d love to see a reversal of the trend.

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  3. jpschimel

    Just as I value peer review to make my work as good as it can be, I appreciate good copy editing. Mostly though, its been eliminated from science publication–we don’t want to, or can’t, pay for it. Some skilled, experienced, knowledgeable, human has to carefully read your work?

    I’ve seen a few too many fiction authors get too famous to be edited. It shows.

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    1. Perlkonig

      I like to tell authors that no one will read their document more slowly, more closely, and with more charity than the editor will.

      Sometimes, though, I wonder if the reason editing is disappearing is because people aren’t actually caring about communicating. The incentive is to simply publish (academia) or to simply be seen as doing something (government), even if it’s nonsensical. Cynical, I know. I have my days of existential angst 🙂 I find myself asking “why” a lot!

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  4. Macrobe

    Good post. At least you were given the opportunity to review the edits before publishing. My last two experiences lacked that, and the edits were awful.

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  5. Elizabeth Moon

    As a writer I’ve had both amazingly good editors and copy editors, and a very few lackluster editors on the structural end, and a few more really bottom-feeder copy editors. The best copy editors do what you listed, and do it smoothly and well. I’ve had copy editors catch continuity problems the book editor and I both missed through several conferences and hurray for that.

    But the bad ones…like most fiction writers, I’ve had CEs “correct” what they think are mistakes that are in fact accurate (esp. in historical fiction but also in SF/F. (Yes, a blue-eyed person can have dark hair. The copy editor who changed the character’s hair color to match their understanding of human possibilities was a) factually wrong and b) going beyond the bounds of copy editing. Yes, in a certain historical period, the modern name of a city could well have been something else.) Had one that (while missing things a CE should catch) changed most of the contracted verbs to expanded forms, and most of the expanded form verbs to contracted verbs on no apparent system at all, in and out of dialogue both. Besides changing words to other words that–yup, were not synonyms. Another decided that due to changes in publisher style, gendered words should be avoided, and suggested (for a battle scene in a military novel) that “Staff the guns” would be a better command than “Man the guns.” Readers would have howled and thrown the book at the wall. Female writers tend to get lectured by bad CEs, as if they were our junior high teachers (it may happen to male writers as well, but they don’t mention it. I’ve been told I was immoral for making up a non-Christian religion for one book, and for a character having sex outside marriage in another.)

    For reasons of aging vision, in part, I prefer copy edits on paper, as dealing with these things in Track Changes is much harder to do, sussing out which version is which and coaxing my older computer and software to engage fully with the version the CE or publisher uses. But the arrival of edits and copy edits in any form always requires a cautious entrance into the manuscript…will this one be an “Ahhh” experience or “Oh dear God, CE, what ARE you doing?”

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This sounds just like my career experience – absent, of course, the religions and the (human) sex, both of which are mostly absent from my papers 🙂 (Well, OK, lots of them are about evolution, but a copyeditor who objected to that presumably wouldn’t last long at a biology journal!)

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  6. Pingback: I hate checking proofs. Here’s how I make it (slightly) easier. | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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