We all want any copy that passes through our hands to be pristine, but we all also know that our clients or employers would rather not have to deal with certain issues. Plagiarism, discriminatory language, and touchy writers can all turn a seemingly simple job into a very complicated one. What do you do when you run into a sticky issue that will have you, the writer, and the other editors all reaching for the Excedrin—or the scotch?
Step one is to prioritize. You’ve already decided that the issue is worth bringing up or you wouldn’t be having this problem, so the issue is not whether to mention it but how far to push it. Ask yourself: If this copy gets distributed without changes, who will be embarrassed? Who will be hurt?
If the answer is “only the writer,” this will be a low-priority issue. It’s the writer’s name, not ours, that shows up on the final piece. Professional pride prevents us from just letting things go, so by all means, bring up anything that has you concerned, including awkward-but-not-inaccurate writing, authorial oversharing, or purple prose. If your questions or suggestions are met with firm pushback, even if the client or employer is wrong or has bad reasons, sometimes it’s best to sigh deeply and mutter, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
If the answer is “the publication,” it’s a high-priority issue, and you likely won’t encounter much resistance in dealing with it as long as you frame it correctly. When you run into problems like inaccurate or insufficient sourcing or attribution, patch writing, or a piece that’s poorly focused or badly structured, the key is to make it clear what’s at stake. Feel free to bust out phrases like “I’m worried that this might have legal implications,” “This appears to go against standard industry practices,” or “I’m concerned that readers won’t be able to interpret this text the way you want.”
Finally, if the answer is “the readers,” this issue should be given the highest priority. You may get pushback when you try to address problems like this—no one wants to feel like they’re insensitive enough to let offensive language slip through, so they may reason that if they already looked at the copy, it must be fine. Rely on phrases like, “Our readers might think…,” “This appears to imply…,” “While I’m sure this is not what was intended…,” and, “This is out of step with current thinking.” Always be polite, but stand firm in the face of resistance; the last thing the writer or publisher should want to do is anger or alienate their readers.
Remember: People want copy editors to be tough (as long as we’re right), so our role affords us some leeway to be stronger advocates for our readers, as long as we also know when to concede.
Learn more about spotting tricky problems, speaking up, and techniques for communicating clearly and respectfully in Colleen Barry’s “Tough Conversations: Handling Sticky Issues with Confidence,” a Copyediting Master Class on July 15, 2016.