Copyediting Isn’t for the Timid
The best copyeditors are not distinguished by their humility; quite the opposite: It takes a healthy arrogance to tell a thoughtful author that there is a better way.
Even the most arrogant of copyeditors grapples with the question, “How much is too much?” A good copyeditor seeks balance between the extremes of deferring always to an author’s judgment and putting one’s mark on every sentence. I’ve known copyeditors who typify both extremes. Heck, I’ve been a copyeditor who typifies both extremes. I wasn’t born this level-headed.
Novice copyeditors often ask themselves, “Who am I to change my author’s prose?” The timid approach leaves copyeditors barely scratching the surface beyond moving a few commas back and forth and correcting a misused their for there.
But timidity isn’t part of the job description. When we pull the cap off our editing pens, we need to do so with the bravado of a character from Walter Scott unsheathing a sword in defense of honor.
We must defend clear writing.
Remember this: The author wants to get a point across. This is the reason for writing. If the point is lost to even a few, the author’s influence is diminished. Vanity may compel many authors to declare it’s the poetry that matters, but the desire to be influential is what really motivates. However hard it is to accept that a first draft is flawed, what author has ever regretted doing so?
Authors may love their words, yet they care more about having their words loved. If you change things for the better, your author will secretly love you. Don’t expect flowers or candy, but don’t fear a nasty dressing down, either. If you’re hired to copyedit, darn it, copyedit. Your readers will thank you. Your author will thank you, too.
Mark Allen is a lifelong journalist and freelance copyeditor in Columbus, Ohio. He spent most of his career on newspaper copy desks, and he now enjoys a diverse and fun collection of copyediting clients. As @EditorMark on Twitter, he offers tips on grammar, usage, and style, and his website includes an archives of more than 600 tweeted tips.