What Good Copyeditors Do: “You Can Always Do Better Than Stale”

By Bill O’Sullivan

Washingtonian senior managing editor Bill O’Sullivan.

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

1. 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.

2. Don’t assume. Think everyone must know that DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals? Just because the initials are tossed around without explanation doesn’t mean people know what they mean. (This could change with time.)

Another example: Some years back, Washingtonian ran a powerful photo of then-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.

3. Never settle for a cliché. 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?

Just yesterday, in an essay that was otherwise very carefully worded, I came across “Without missing a beat . . .” Immediate cross-out!

Sometimes it’s not a matter of cutting but of coming up with a fresher way of saying it or passing it back to the writer. You can always do better than stale.

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.

Speak Your Mind