Copyediting: What Even IS That? Four Copyeditors Discuss The Matter
Back in May, Claire—WWAC’s Features and Opinions Editor—and Jasmine—the co-editor of The Psychedelic Journal—had a little roundtable discussion on editing and what it’s all about. This got us—the copyediting team here at WWAC—thinking. Perhaps we should have a little roundtable of our own.
“Copyediting?” “What even is that?” “Why do you need a copyeditor?” “Don’t you just write some thoughts out into the computer, maybe have an editor look it over, and then press publish?” “I heard that *insert big publication name* fired all of their copyeditors. Why does a publication, like WWAC, need copyeditors then?”
Sometimes I feel like the role of “copyeditor” is one of the most misunderstood in all of journalism! So let’s take a look at how our copy team responded to some questions about copyediting for WWAC and copyediting in general.
Who are you, and what do you copyedit?
Rine Karr: I’m the Copy Chief here at Women Write About Comics by moonlight. I’m also a full-time copyeditor for a private company by daylight.
Carly Smith: I am one of the copyeditors at Women Write About Comics. I also do proofreading for a magazine called xyHt.
Kat Overland: I’m a copyeditor here at WWAC, and I copyedit webcontent and deliverables at my day job. I’m also editing an anthology for McFarland Press, which is going to involve quite a bit of copyediting.
Jessica Pryde: I’m a copyeditor at Women Write About Comics, but I’m not doing it anywhere else right now.
How did you get into copyediting?
Rine: I’ve been in school for a very, very long time, so writing, editing, copyediting, and proofreading have been central to my daily life for many years. When I was an undergrad, I worked for my college’s writing center where I would read all different kinds of assignments and help students to develop their writing. I also helped students with minor grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure issues, although this wasn’t the focus of the job. Also, my classmates and friends used to come to me all the time to read over their papers. So, like I said, I feel like I’ve been a copyeditor all my life, even though I only just started to copyedit professionally fairly recently. I got into copyediting for WWAC because I wanted to take my skills and apply them to something I love, which is all things geeky!
Carly: I worked on my high school’s newspaper, and I liked feeling important, so I decided to run for copy chief. Nobody else was interested in the tedious work of copyediting every page of the newspaper, so I got it by default, and I discovered I liked catching mistakes before they went into print. I went on to copyedit my college’s paper as well, and that led me to other copyediting and proofreading jobs.
Kat: I was that friend who would edit everyone’s essays in high school, and then in college, and then later found myself editing writing samples and resumes. This is my first real gig with the title of copyeditor, but I’ve done work at publishing companies, publications, and with clients that involves producing and editing content.
Jessica: Like Kat, I was the obsessive editor of my own and everyone else’s work. When I was working as a school librarian, students who made the mistake of asking me to read their papers didn’t know what they were in for when they got lots of green ink back (I respect the red pen but prefer cooler colors). Mostly I just rewrite sentences in my head while reading novels and internet articles that could have used a few more pass-throughs. This is my first official editorial work; I had been looking for ways to up my copyediting game for a while when a friend who writes for WWAC posted that they were looking for a few good ladies. Providence. Or something.
What exactly do you do as a copyeditor?
Rine: Copyeditors are kind of a step below editors, but a step up from proofreaders. We look at written materials that have already been edited by editorial assistants, section editors, or the editor-in-chief and prepare them for publication. Our job is to take a writer’s final draft and make it shine! We examine content and structure, making sure that everything is logical and makes sense. Even though we’re not exactly proofreaders, we still look at grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure, and oftentimes, we do the work of a proofreader in addition to looking at content issues. Formatting and consistency are important, and we make sure that an article conforms to our own “house style.” So, we fix things like headers, captions, and other style rules. We also fact-check articles and make sure that all names, titles, and numbers are correctly referenced, and since we’re writing for the internet, we also make sure that hyperlinks work.
Carly: I keep an eye out for mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, the way paragraphs flow from one to the next, and overall arguments. I do a lot of line editing, which means I focus line by line for small, easy to miss mistakes like typos. The larger content-related edits are very important, too! Luckily, the editors here at WWAC do a great job of working with writers on their arguments and writing style, so most of my work is catching mistakes and ensuring the article conforms to the house style guide. Copyediting should make the article easier to read and remove distractions that weaken the piece. There’s nothing like a silly typo to pull you out of an article!
Kat: I like to begin with proofreading and style editing—things like, are all the em dashes consistent? Then I have a good feel for what needs to be cleaned up, like cumbersome sentences, word choices, and things like that. Ultimately, though, I’m try to make sure the author is accomplishing what they set out to do with their piece: is their argument clear? Could points be better defined? Sometimes that means having a back-and-forth with the author to make sure we’re on the same page, because I don’t want to clarify something incorrectly.
Jessica: I start reading and go from there. While I always want to make sure I’m not changing the voice or tone of the author, I look for ways to make sentences flow better. Sometimes this means changing wording, adding a semicolon (or other punctuation … but I have a strong affinity for the semicolon), or breaking a longer sentence into multiples. While I’m reading (sometimes aloud, just to see how the flow works) I am also looking at house style: do we italicize movie titles? How many spaces are there between those sentences? Would that em dash work better as a semicolon or vice versa? And then of course there are spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that we all make when we want to get a thought out before it flies away. I’m basically there as the final step in making sure the author puts out their best work.
What kinds of editing do you enjoy the most. The least?
Rine: I admit, I like to edit things that are easy to see, like a missing comma here or a misspelled word there. I love looking for grammar and formatting mistakes. I’m geeky about that kind of stuff and actually enjoy looking up rules and how to use certain words on websites like Grammarist or in my copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. I don’t always feel as confident doing content editing or rewriting an author’s sentences. Of course, I step up and do it all the time! But I’d rather suggest a change in the content of a sentence if I feel that it needs clarification, but I like to leave that change up to the author. I think that’s why I thrived in my undergraduate writing center, because I was there to make suggestions about the content and organization of an essay, to give advice, but it was up to the author to make those changes. I think my misgivings about content editing lately derive from a lack of confidence. My life has been a little turbulent as of late, so I think I just need to get back some of the confidence I’ve lost and settle back into doing the things I love, if that makes sense. I’m not really sure if I’m feeling “imposter syndrome” lately, but sometimes I do experience those sorts of feelings. I think at work, “Why are these people coming to me with these important questions about their writing? I still have so much to learn and improve on my own writing!”
Carly: I find line editing much easier than larger content editing. It’s more tedious, but it reminds me of word searches. As a kid, finding particular words in word searches came pretty easily to me just by scanning over the letters and predicting which word would appear. When I’m line editing, typos are easy to find for me, and I trust my judgment enough at this point to know when someone’s grammar is off because I was pulled out of the article for a moment in confusion. Content editing is so rewarding, though! That’s when you’re really interacting with the writer’s ideas and trying to find the holes in their arguments so that they can fill them in. It’s so hard to edit your own work, so I like being a fresh pair of eyes for other people.
Kat: Content editing is honestly what I really like—I like having a dialogue with the author, and I like the feeling of polishing good work so the author’s meaning is really shining through. This is also why I, like Carly, find it really hard to edit my own stuff. Line editing, however, has really helped me pare down my writing and identify my own common mistakes.
Jessica: I don’t really know. I love content editing, but I try not to be too heavy handed at it (unless you’re in high school, at which point I will make you rewrite everything multiple times). I find line editing to be the hardest because you really do have to pay attention to every. Single. Word. If the average person is reading a sentence that has a “too” instead of a “to” in the middle of it, their eyes might drift right over it. As a heavy reader, I have to make a deliberate mental shift to make sure I’m not just reading, but following.
How does one become a copyeditor? And what kinds of people are best suited for working as a copyeditor?
Rine: I sort of fell into copyediting. There are many people who go to school for English or journalism or even for a Master’s degree in publishing and writing. But I’m not sure you really need these things to become a copyeditor. They definitely help, but I think I landed my current job partly because I’ve been copyediting for WWAC for fun! Personally, I feel like I’m suited for this type of work, because I like to work independently. I’m an introvert, and I like to work quietly at my computer for most of the day. I’m the kind of person who’s in my mind a lot, if that makes any sense! I like to focus on what I’m doing, whatever it might be that I’m doing. Also, I like to learn about new things every day. You don’t need to know and can’t possibly know every grammar or punctuation rule in the book. It’s good to be familiar with certain style guides for writing, but it’s even better if you are proactive about looking up the rules when you don’t know them. I think that’s half the battle—taking the time to look up the rules, because most people don’t have the time to do so. Like Plato said, “I know that I know nothing.” I think that’s a good rule to live by!
Carly: I think working as a copyeditor for my college newspaper really helped out. You definitely don’t need to be studying journalism to be a copyeditor. I was a journalism student, but several English majors also helped out with editing. Make sure to study up on style guides if you’re going to be a copyeditor. You don’t need to have it completely memorized, but you need to be familiar enough with the rules that when you read an article and are questioning whether something is correct, you know to consult the style guide to check. I think detail-oriented people are more suited for line editing, and you need to be committed to reading something multiple times. If you’re editing multiple pieces in a day, you need to be able to sort of “empty” your memories of the previous piece you read when editing the current one. You need to be completely focused.
Kat: I’m a big nerd who used to be pretty great with the AP Style Guide, which is probably what made my friends ask for help in high school, and it kind of stuck. My friends and I had a writing group in high school as well, which I think helped me hone how to edit in a way that’s not overbearing or mean (I hope!), and how to talk about issues I find in writing. One key is to make sure you list your experience in copyediting as a skill on your resume, even if it’s not something you’ve been paid for (yet).
Jessica: In my experience, the right kind of people fall into it, but that’s just me (and Rine). A love of the language and an appreciation for words really helps, in any kind of editing. Also a really good memory or knack for rules, since there are a lot or at least a lot of bookmarks to the lists of rules you’re going to use. The key to being a good copyeditor, though, is patience and keen attention to detail. Like I said before, the regular non-member of the Grammar Police isn’t going to fret over that extra for in a sentence; we have to not only notice them, but make sure they aren’t there. We have to bring an author’s meaning to the forefront without taking away their voice, or putting our own into it.