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.