Thursday, January 5, 2012

Work, or, What Is a Copyeditor?

I am blessed to do what I love for a living. I’ve always wanted to work with words, and (except for a brief, badly advised interval that shall go undescribed) I always have.

For most of my career the words I worked with came in between and wrapped around a lot of signs, symbols, and equations. Although I liked my job at a mathematics publisher, I kept longing to be able to sink my editorial teeth into subjects that I could actually understand. So eventually I decided to work for a master’s degree in psychology.

Thanks to a generous program of my employer and the patience and support (emotional and financial) of my husband, I finished my degree program in 1997. I had reduced my position to part time at my employer while I studied, and I began to use the spare time I had to start seeking freelance work. I was lucky enough to find a few clients, and in the fall of that year I became a full-time freelancer.

I love working for myself. The lifestyle suits me well, even though I do have times when I miss having other people to interact with. But I’m an introvert, and I’ve always worked better when I can be by myself, in my own space, without interruptions.

Having a flexible schedule has been a godsend over the past few years, as my mother began to suffer from dementia and needed care. I’ve been able to reduce my workload when needed or even take time off, as I did this past summer when she went into assisted living and I visited her on most days of the week.

I’m not always best at disciplining myself, though. That’s something I still work at. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I tell people I’m a copyeditor, they often want to know what that entails. So here’s a brief description of some of the things we do.

What is a copyeditor?

A copyeditor is the link (invisible but hopefully never missing) between author and reader.

Copyeditors have a dual consciousness. We must try to put ourselves inside the mind of the reader, reading the text as he or she will, thinking, “Would I as a reader understand what’s meant here? Would this phrasing make me stumble or stub my toes? Would this ambiguous pronoun confuse me about the meaning of the sentence? Why did the verb tense suddenly change?” We must also try to think like authors, even though we may not be experts in the subject, trying to follow their line of thought and understand what they are trying to say and whether a few word changes or punctuation will make that thought clearer. Unfortunately, though, we’re not mind readers. That’s what author queries are for (AU: OK as edited??)

Like housework, copyediting, when well done, is invisible. It may be noticed only when it isn’t done or is done poorly.

Suppose you were reading a novel or textbook and you came across the following:

· The Magna Carta was signed in 1298. (actually 1215)

· Thoreau’s great work was titled On Walden Pond. (just Walden)

· Fargo won the Best Picture Oscar in 1996. (The English Patient won.)

· A woman in France makes a call at 5 p.m. to her husband in New England--where it’s bedtime. (It’s actually earlier in the U.S. than in Europe)

The first three are actual errors that I caught when working on manuscripts. The fourth I found in a published novel, and it certainly affected my enjoyment of what was otherwise a good story. They don’t by any means reflect on the intelligence of the authors; we’re all human beings, and authors have a difficult task in organizing their thoughts and expressing what they want to say. Even small errors, those that might easily escape any author proofing his or her own work, can make a big difference in how the author’s work is received by a reader. An omitted not can entirely change the meaning of a sentence.  Extraneous words can clutter a sentence and make it more difficult to read.

And then there are the “spell check”errors—things that a word processor’s checking program will miss simply because it isn’t programmed to catch them. Have you ever red (read) anything like “the cargo was to (too) heavy to left (lift)”? Or stumbled on two words in succession that seem to mean the same thing—hole crater—because the author changed the word but simply forgot to delete the original one? A spell checker won’t catch these things. A trained, sensitive copyeditor will.

Have red pencil, will use it.

I breathe, therefore I edit.


  1. Thanks for the post Elaine. I want to work at home and am so curious about copywriters and editors. Have a splendid day -Kelly

  2. Good editors are hard to find, and a mean red pen (or pencil) never scared me ;-) Love it!

  3. Love learning about you. A copyeditor is a most valuable tool. My sister is very good at this and we work well together. I really appreciate what you do because those kinds of errors, unseen by the author, need to be corrected for the readers enjoyment.

  4. I didn't realize you'd moved on from the technical copy editing. Now I know who to employ when I need a good "red pencil"! :)
    Great post!

  5. Did a lot of this kind of editing for engineers before I retired. They seemed so discouraged when they saw all the red ink on their papers. Then I showed them one of my own after I edited it. Good writing is good editing.

  6. You have a dream job for any writer! When I was a senior in high school, I applied for an editor's job for our local paper. Basically, it was to check articles for spelling and grammar. I didn't get the job! I went for it because I love spelling and words.

    To this day, when I read the newspaper, I am flabbergasted at the grammatical and spelling errors!

  7. Great post, I envy you, but not because I want your job. I simply need your skills!

  8. As a person who could use a good editor or even just a proofreader, I salute you. Nice post, Elaine.

  9. This is very interesting, I did learn something today. Happy you have a job you like!

  10. This is a great post. I want to be copy editor!
    I love words. Catch mistakes occasionally. Wow. It seems a dedicated line of work. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I love words too--and I would love to spend a month trying it out to see if I would be challenged enough to enjoy it long term. As I do love words, and I love to read--I have to always seek the next level or I become discontented. Still, I would love to try it out!

    Cheers, Jenn

  12. You are a scary lady to the poor little writer in my head, who is currently traumatized by your red pen! However, reading about what you do was interesting and informative, so thanks for sharing :o)

  13. One of my sisters was a copyeditor. She's retired now, but her inner-editor didn't get the memo. ;O)

  14. You have an amazing job.
    That was a cool read

  15. I'm retired now, but if I was still in the market for a job, I would love to try this. Errors just seem to jump at me. It is distracting to me to see errors when I read. I read a blog today that continually used a word that should have been 2 words. Yet the two words together made a word that had a totally different meaning. Very interesting! Lucky ducky to have such a great job!

  16. Thanks to everyone for reading and for your kind comments. Copyeditors often don't feel appreciated (read the line about "housework" above), so it's great to get validation from all of you. I've been lucky to have a few authors thank me and even include my name in their acknowledgments. Few and far between, but enough to be gratifying. And yes, the number of errors you find in print these days is exasperating! Beth, did your sister work for a company, a publisher, or for herself? Darlene, I'd love to know what the words were that mean something different when written together. Sounds like a puzzle from Games magazine! I was hoping this post wasn't too boring, so I appreciate all your comments!

  17. I haven't read all the comments here. But I know I would love a job like this.