Copyeditors and bullshit removal

Photo: PDPics

I love copyeditors. I just wish they could go further.

Over the years, the many copyeditors I’ve worked with have flagged my embarrassing misspellings, taught me obscure grammar rules, and saved me from looking stupid.  We bond over our Oxford commas. And I pride myself on creating “clean” prose — drafts that are ready for copyedit and don’t have a lot of errors.

There were quite a few good ones at Forrester. I liked to tweak them. About 15 years ago I drove one to the dictionary to look up “portmanteau,” a word I’d used to refer to a dumb technology product that tried to do two things at once. “Not familiar with that word?” I asked with a smirk. “Oh, sure I am,” she said. “I’m just checking if the plural ends in “s” or “x.”

Copyeditors can ruin prose. On Outside In, a book I edited and shepherded through the publishing process, the publisher’s copyeditor made a huge number of seemingly irrelevant changes that would have messed up the text. (Do you really have to hyphenate “customer-experience design”?) I fled to the arms of Merlina, a Forrester copyeditor I’d learned to trust completely. “Is this right?” I asked. She reviewed the manuscript and told me to reject most of the changes. “She’s following rules that were obsolete 15 years ago,” Merlina told me. And we won. Copyeditors are like lawyers. You want one to tell you the rules, and sometimes you need to hire your own to fight to preserve your integrity.

Rules do change. The Washington Post’s Bill Walsh, author of the winsomely named The Elephants of Style, just decided to accept email (no hyphen), Walmart (no hyphen), website (no space), and mic (as in “drop the”). Welcome to the twenty-first century, Bill.

Here’s the problem, though. Passive voice is not ungrammatical. Weasel words are perfectly good words. Jargon offends the reader, but isn’t incorrect English. And a copyeditor will happily (or sometimes, sadly) verify the grammatical correctness of a long sentence or paragraph that you should have just deleted.

Who’s Whose job is it to fix those?

Your content editor, if you have one, should help you with that. You ought to have a voice in your own head telling you when you’ve committed bullshit. And if you get along well with your copyeditor, you can tell them to help you with the remaining bad prose that slips through, even if it’s correct English. (If you’re having problems with the “them” in that sentence, I’ll point out that Bill Walsh also just approved the singular “they.”)

Once our collaborators and editors are working together to purge words that don’t add meaning, our readers will be better off. We’ll still need copyeditors (God knows I do). But our copyeditors will be a lot happier when they’re finding flaws in prose that’s doing its job efficiently instead of stinking up the joint.

P.S. Go ahead, try to argue with me about whether it’s “copy editor” or “copyeditor.” Just try.


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  1. This post is a timely grammar update, sorely needed by many. Accepting the plural “they” still grates on my education, but it does solve the awkward problem of picking a gender when none exists. I really appreciate the links to books and other articles, Josh. Happy Holidays!

  2. Josh, have you found a cost effective company that will freelance copy editing? I have used companies that freelance copy writing but don’t know if there are any that will help with just the editing. With a big push for content marketing and explosion of amateur blog writers, I would think it would be a valuable service.

    1. Many people (like me) just use somebody we’ve known and learned to trust. There are many, many people out there doing this freelance.

      Here’s a company that offers it as a service. Not a recommendation, I have no experience with them:


      1. Thanks Josh! It’s good to know these copy editing resources exist. I put together a content marketing program and managed a team of corporate bloggers but I wasn’t trained in editing and proofreading. Something like this can be helpful if you don’t have need for a fulltime editor.

  3. “Copyeditors can ruin prose.”
    This is so true and yet something that many editors probably don’t understand, and there lies the problem. Amateur writers and editors expose themselves by arguing over rules of grammar. The fact is that when you’ve elevated your writing to an expert level, you break the rules. Doing so creates far more rich and lyrical writing, and ultimately more interesting reading, which is the goal of all of us.
    Some of us do go further. If all your editor does is flag every technical “error” like a middle school English teacher, then we’re here to help.