What Good Copyeditors Do: They’re Wary of Writers Who Like “Original” Words

By Bill O’Sullivan

Washingtonian senior managing editor Bill O’Sullivan.

Here are three more things good copyeditors do. (Read the first three here and the next three here.)

1. 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 of writers who strain too hard 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.

2. 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”). You set foot in a room, you don’t “step foot” (surprisingly common error). 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.

3. 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, not Grand Central Station; that it’s chaise longue, not chaise lounge (though if you forget, chaise by itself will do just fine);  that yuca and yucca are different plants.

And 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.

If you’re not sure, look it up. And with that, we’re back to where good copyediting begins.

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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