Last week, I talked about the different editorial roles in publishing, but I’d like to go a bit more in depth on the role of a copyeditor specifically. Since that’s what I do.
People often confuse copyediting with some of the other roles, like proofreading, they're really not the same. So, what does a copyeditor do?
In a nutshell, we work with an author to produce a manuscript that serves the needs of the author, the reader, and, if applicable, the publisher.
To do that, we focus on mechanics (spelling, punctuation, etc.), language (grammar, usage, etc.), consistency, and style. We might make note of permissions that need to be acquired or facts to be checked, but these aren’t the main tasks we work on.
Copyeditor as Intermediary
If you are self-publishing or writing a blog, you probably don’t have a third party, like a publisher, to worry about, but your needs and desires as an author aren’t the only consideration in preparing a work for publication.
Presumably, one of your desires in writing is to have people read your work and react in a certain way. (I would say have people like your work, but that may not necessarily be your purpose in writing.) That requires factoring in a second party: the reader.
You, as the author, do most of the work creating a manuscript that conveys your message, but often, we can get so entrenched in a manuscript and lost in what we mean to say that we fail to see how others might read it.
That’s where the copyeditor comes in. We work, not to make it say what we think it should say, but to make sure it says what you, the author, meant it to. We help bridge the gap between the author and the reader.
This is the point where people often confuse copyediting and proofreading. In this area, both work with the “hard” aspects of editing: spelling, punctuation, etc. But proofreaders work with an already-edited manuscript near the end of the process, while copyeditors work on so much more, in addition to making decisions on how the mechanics are treated throughout the manuscript. Proofreaders check to make sure the mechanical elements adhere to the decisions made by the copyeditor.
While mechanics deal with the more objective elements of writing, language refers to the subjective.
There are hundreds of ways to say basically the same thing, but each one means something slightly different, has a different flavor or nuance.
He walked across the room.
He glided across the room.
He prowled across the room.
He pranced across the room.
He clumped across the room.
The list could go on and on. And that’s only with changing one little verb.
Then, there’s rhythm and pacing. The length and complexity of the sentences. The length of the paragraphs. The cadence of the words can affect a reader’s experience as much as the meaning of the words.
Also, copyeditors ensure that the language fits the audience and the purpose. A scientist writing for other scientists would choose vastly different language than one writing for the general public. Academic writing requires more formal language than a lifestyle blog. And children’s books don’t read the same as YA or sci-fi or mystery or romance or a memoir.
Have you ever found yourself reading a novel and come across a passage about a Mrs. Jeffreys and thought to yourself, “Wasn’t that spelled Jeffries in the last chapter?” Or gotten to the end of a long scene and thought, “Why are they stepping off a boat? I thought they were on a train.” Or a character’s brother suddenly and inexplicably becomes their cousin. Or a recipe calls for baking soda in the ingredient list and baking powder in the instructions.
Such errors are jarring and damage an author’s credibility with their readers. Unfortunately, those types of errors are also incredibly easy to make, especially in longer manuscripts that are written and rewritten in sections.
There is software, like PerfectIt, available to help with some aspects of consistency, but for others you just need a fresh set of eyes.
And be careful with Word’s Find and Replace feature! It’s an amazing tool and incredibly helpful and time saving but should be used with care.
There are so many anecdotal stories of people who wanted to make wholesale changes of one word throughout a document, only to make a complete disaster of it.
Imagine you wanted to change the cats in your story to dogs. Just Find all the instances of cat and Replace with dog, right? And find yourself with a manuscript full of dogastrophies and dogegories.
Style is one of those things that I never even knew existed until I started studying editing. It’s one of the main reasons you need more than good grades in your high school English classes to become a professional editor.
Aside from the false rules they taught us in school about not ending a sentence with a preposition or starting one with a conjunction, they never taught us about style.
In school, we learned things were right or wrong. What they failed to tell us is that right and wrong are relative. Language is about communication and varies depending on many factors, such as location, culture, and socioeconomic status.
Style is about adhering to an agreed-upon set of rules for specific circumstances. And there are numerous style guides out there: Chicago, AP (Associated Press), APA (American Psychological Association), AMA (American Medical Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and many, many more. Then, there are the individual style guides that companies and publishers use to either replace or supplement the bigger, more established style guides.
And that, my friends, is what a copyeditor does!
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.