Editing week, Level 4: How to love your copy editor

Image: Arrant Pedantry

Like all writers, I have a fraught relationship with copy editors. I give them my perfect prose and then it’s pick, pick, pick. But I can’t live without one. Today: how to value copyeditors and your own prose, all at the same time.

I’ve taken you through the whole editing process this week: idea development, structural editing, line-editing, and now, copy editing. Idea development is fun, since anything is possible. Same with structural editing — you haven’t really written anything yet, so there’s no cost to moving the pieces around. But when you hand things over to the copyeditor, you imagine that you are done. The copyeditor’s job is to find fault, to prove that no, you are not done. So there’s an inherent conflict.

What is copy editing?

Here’s what we’re talking about:

A copyeditor is an expert trained in finding and applying the rules of writing, style, and grammar. Copy editing is the process in which the copyeditor finds, flags, and suggests fixes to elements of a text that are inaccurate, inconsistent, confusing, or contrary to the rules of usage and grammar.

Copyeditors work at the end of the process, since there’s no point in checking this kind of stuff until the text is pretty close to final.

People these days use the words copyeditor and proofreader pretty much interchangeably. When typesetting was a separate process (and it still is, in the book world), proofreading happens even later, making sure that the process of setting things into pages didn’t introduce additional problems. Colloquially, “proofreading” just means “finding errors the writer missed,” which is part of what copyeditors do.

What the writer brings to copy editing

That’s simple. The writer’s job is turn in a final manuscript. Not nearly final; completely final.

It is a waste of everybody’s time for copyeditors to review text that’s not final, because whatever you change after the copyedit will slip in, unseen by the copyeditor and as a result, possibly including errors.

Realistically, late interview responses and late-breaking news mean that you must sometimes make changes after copy edits are done. If President Obama responds to your request for an interview but the piece is already in copy edit, you’re not going to say no. But when you subvert the process, you invite the possibility for errors.

It’s also helpful to tell copyeditors what you’re worried about, grammatically. If you have a lingering problems with passive voice, clue them in. Or ask them to check the rendering of company names. Whatever you’re worried about, they can help.

What the copyeditor brings to copy editing

Copyeditors are modest by nature. They like writing and want to make it great, but they also recognize that they are the last line of defense against error. As a result, a copyeditor will find and flag the following (and be aware, this list varies slightly depending on your particular process and content):

  • Grammatical errors. You used “that” when you should have used “which.” You put the period on the wrong side of the quotation mark.
  • Spelling errors. You wrote “hole” when you meant “whole” or used “colour” on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
  • Rendering of names. A good copyeditor will check and tell you that you wrote Thomson Reuters when you really meant Thomson Consumer Electronics, or that Deborah Schultz always uses “Wasserman” as part of her professional name.
  • Consistency. You’ve been capitalizing “Iron Imperative” in Chapters 1 through 4, but left it lowercase in Chapter 5.
  • Style. Most organizations base their style on either AP or Chicago Manual of Style; adherents of these rival groups have been known to come to blows. Regardless of which your company chooses, there are always idiosyncratic tweaks based on your “house style.” For example, at Forrester, they capitalize every word in a title, even words like “the.”
  • Accuracy. In some cases, copyeditors will check facts, like dates and numbers. (In some editorial processes, there are separate fact-checkers for that.)
  • What you ask for. You can ask a copyeditor to flag passive voice, cliches, or overuse of the word “cloud” if you think these are problems you have.
  • Just good sense. Copyeditors flag stuff that just doesn’t seem right — sentences that don’t make sense, definitions that seem odd, inconsistencies in head levels. Many are the times that a copyeditor has noticed a problem in my prose that everyone else had missed, but that caused me to smack myself in the head and say “Augh. What a dummy!”

How to work with copyeditors

Your job, as the writer, is to review each copy edit and accept it, address it some other way, or reject it (by writing “stet”).

The copyeditor on my first book flagged a bunch of stuff that I thought was fine, and I conducted a long and emotional (and mostly imaginary) dialogue with her through my comments. Boy, was I pissed.

That was a really stupid thing to do, because it’s a waste of effort to get upset with a copy editor. Your job is just to decide what to do about what they notice. They’re just applying a set of rules, and you’re damn lucky they’ve got the patience to wade through whatever you wrote.

Instead, you should love your copyeditor, because he or she (and it’s usually she, in my experience) can see things that you missed, and can save you from looking stupid.

If you like to italicize a few too many words or use colloquial expressions and the copyeditor flags them, you can revert it with a simple “stet.” And with that “stet” in your hand, you can keep the writing the way you want it.


Always learn from what copyeditors flag, and fix the grammatical and other errors they’ve noticed.

Never ignore what a copyeditor points out, because there is always a good reason for it.

And never ruin your prose just because a copyeditor says so. Find a way to keep the beauty and meaning of what you wrote and obey the rules, too.

Creating peace in the editorial process

Passionate writers love what they do. So do editors. They are going to be in conflict, whether it’s fighting about ideas or fighting about grammar.

But this conflict and the ways that you resolve it determine the quality of what you produce.

So love and hate your editor, but make peace with them in the end, because your relationships — and prose — will be better off if you do.

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One Comment

  1. A heartfelt thanks. You nailed it.

    Judy Arginteanu

    P.S. I also really like your other posts that do not specifically address copy editors. Keep up the excellent work.