What Good Copyeditors Do: For One Thing, They Read Everything Twice

By Bill O’Sullivan

Washingtonian senior managing editor 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.

Copyediting comes more easily to some than to others, and it’s more enjoyable for some. Having fun with arcana helps a lot. That’s why there are relatively few really top-notch copyeditors. Most people get their kicks elsewhere.

Here are three of the things I’ve learned. (Future posts will address a few more.)

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 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. Which I prefer to see as encouraging rather than discouraging.

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor of Washingtonian. He has taught the personal essay at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, for 25 years. On Twitter, he’s @billmatto.

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