By Bill O’Sullivan
Copyeditors do more than fix grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They solve problems every hour of every day and plant the flag for good English and clear writing—a worthy goal in the age of emoticons and Twitter shorthand. They save writers and the publications they work for from embarrassment.
A copyeditor asks questions and makes suggestions that, for whatever reason during the editing process, no matter how good the assigning editors are, never got asked or suggested: What do you mean? Who is this person ID’d by only a last name? That last sentence doesn’t add much—it might be stronger to end with the previous one. This sounds choppy. Oh, and nice lede.
The best copyeditors are born, not made. You can be decent at the job with training and hard work, but it helps if you take pleasure in tasks many people would find mind-numbing. For those of us who like it, it can be extremely satisfying. Perfection is nice but probably unrealistic. I prefer to recast it as getting it right.
Here are some things I’ve learned.
1. When in doubt, look it up. We don’t know everything; we just know when to look something up. Are you sure “copyeditor” isn’t hyphenated? Or two words? (It’s one according to The American Heritage Dictionary, the spelling guide at The Washingtonian, where I work.) Never remember if it’s Van Gogh or van Gogh? It’s the second one.
2. Be consistent. Consistency shows readers someone is at the wheel. You may not think people care whether you always use the same style for “adviser” vs. “advisor” or “toward” vs. “towards” or that you punctuate listings the same way every time, but consistency imparts an awareness among your audience, if only subconsciously, that intent is behind every word. That, in turn, engenders confidence.
3. Read everything twice. That goes for the longest article and the shortest headline. At least 75 percent of the time, you’ll notice or realize something you didn’t the first time through. This rate seems not to change much throughout one’s copyediting career.
4. See that each sentence is the tightest it can be. Instead of “There are some people who think the President can do better,” try “Some think the President can do better.” (All writers can do better by avoiding “there is” and “there are.”) By the same token, would too much tightening kill a joke, mar the rhythm, or harm the writer’s voice? Maybe. Sometimes you actually are harming the voice, and sometimes the writer is the only one thinking you are. Like any editor, a copyeditor often has to balance the publication’s needs and the writer’s wishes. Negotiation is part of the job, as is standing your ground when you have to.
5. Don’t assume. Think everyone must know that LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design? Just because the initials are tossed around doesn’t mean people know what they mean. Another example: The Washingtonian ran a powerful photo of President Obama embracing former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at the State of the Union address along with a caption commenting on the emotion of the occasion. The copy that came to me didn’t mention that Giffords had been shot in the head in January 2011 or that the photo was of the 2012 State of the Union, a year later. Every chance you give readers to stop and scratch their heads is a chance for them to put the magazine down.
6. Never settle for a cliché. This is one of the most important rules of writing as well. I came across a reference to “pesky blackheads” in an article about facials. That’s advertising lingo—and what else would blackheads be if not pesky? Sometimes it’s not a matter of cutting a word but of coming up with a fresher way of saying it, or passing it back to the writer.
7. Watch out for word repetition. Using the same word several times in a sentence or paragraph causes a clanging in the ear—or a thud. Careful copyeditors listen to sentences as much as they read them. Writers have looked at their own sentences so many times that it’s easy for them to miss this repetition. Readers will catch it if a copyeditor doesn’t. On the other hand, beware writers who strain to find an “original” word: tome instead of book, spectacles instead of glasses, pooch or Fido instead of dog (one of my, excuse me, pet peeves). As for overreaching to avoid “says,” I refer you to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
8. Make sure expressions and terms are used correctly. I often see something like this: Hit up the bar for great happy-hour specials. “Hit up” means ask for money, not “go to” (it should be simply “hit”). The expression is “crying all the way to the bank,” not “laughing all the way to the bank” (as in Yeah, right, poor guy—he’s crying all the way to the bank). Then there’s the misusage that gets any self-respecting copyeditor screaming: I could care less. As for foreign terms, if you don’t know other languages, look words up and you’ll begin to absorb some rules. I’ve studied several languages but not Spanish; in copyediting I’ve picked up that Spanish plurals are formed by adding -s or -es, much as they are in English. That helps me when I edit a review of a tapas bar. From less than a year of continuing-ed Italian, I know that panini and crostini are plurals, despite how the words are used by most Americans.
9. Memorize. How do you remember that millennium has two l’s and two n’s (but that, if you’re copyediting an article about used cars, the Mazda Millenia has one n); that farther is for physical distance and further is for figurative; that it’s Grand Central Terminal and not Grand Central Station; that it’s chaise longue, not chaise lounge; that yuca and yucca are different plants (one edible, one not); that an organization or business is an “it,” not a “they”; that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a digit but spell the number out (or rework the sentence if the first word is the name of, say, a restaurant called 1789); or what the house style of your publication is (does it use the serial comma, capitalize “the” at the start of a business’s name, spell out numbers through ten or through twenty)? You memorize it, that’s all. And if you’re not sure, look it up (see number 1).
Copyediting comes more easily to some than to others, and it’s more enjoyable for some. Having fun with such arcana helps a lot. That’s why there are relatively few really top-notch copyeditors. Most people get their kicks elsewhere.
*I originally had ten but cut one. (See number 4.)
Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor of The Washingtonian, where he has spent 18 years, the last 14 continuous. His other titles at the magazine have included intern, assistant editor, assistant managing editor, and features editor. He has also been managing editor of Common Boundary, a magazine that covered psychology and spirituality, and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. He has an MFA in creative writing and teaches the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.