In the land between writer and reader, there lies the copy editor. But what is a copy editor? What do they do? For that matter, what do they not do? That’s our topic for this week, and with at least one copy editor on the podcast, we should be able to get through it without too many revisions. Listen as we discuss different editing levels, what authors can expect from their edits, and whether there should be a space in “copy editor.”
Download Episode 237 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Axolotl. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Wes: Hello, you’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Wes, with me today is…
Wes: And today we will be talking about copy editing. Please stick around. I promise it’ll be interesting. [All chuckle]
Oren: If you want to start a fight, just go to a room of editors and ask them where a heavy copy edit ends and where a line edit begins. It will be absolute carnage, I promise.
Wes: [In weary tone] Oh boy…
Chris: There is! There are a lot of really passionate debates.
Wes: It is fascinating, just the disagreements of where the job starts and ends. And I get that because you know, it relates to quotes and pay and valuing your time and that kind of stuff. But every profession has its oddities, and copyediting is weirder than normal because of questions like, ‘is there a space between copy and editing?’ No.
Chris: [Laughing] Yeah, that’s the best one.
Wes: I say 1000% no. It’s one word, and I will die on that hill.
Chris: [In sarcastic, teasing tone] Oh..
Wes: Do you want to know why? I have rationale.
Chris: I have to admit though, in my notes. I put a space there…
Wes: I saw that you and Oren both put spaces in those notes.
Chris: [Laughs] Oh, no, we’re guilty.
Wes: Okay. I wanted to, wait for it: I wanted to copy space edit it.
Chris and Oren: What?
Wes: Because I am a copyeditor, one word.
Chris: Oh… okay, there’s a space when it’s a verb
Wes: Exactly, and that’s consistent across a lot of phrasal verbs. So, if you say to someone I want to check in with you, that has a space. But tomorrow, let’s have a check-in. It’s one word. Because it’s a noun right? So I like doing copyediting that way because it’s consistent.
Chris: I try to think about that rule whenever I’m deciding whether I should have a hyphen or not, which is confusing and not 100% consistent. It’s about the convention for that set of words, right? But the convention is that you have a hyphen if the two words together act as an adjective. And if they’re a verb, you have a space.
Wes: Yes, and if it’s a noun ideally no space and no hyphen. Well now that we’ve thoroughly confused everybody, I did want to get a few things out of the way about what a copy editor is, if you guys will indulge me for a hot moment.
Chris: I think that’s important because most people don’t quite understand what all the different types of editing are and the terminology. Plus, the terminology from editor to editor is not entirely consistent and it leads to a lot of confusion. So I think it would be very valuable to just go over what different things are.
Wes: Okay. Let’s get things clear for everybody listening. The copyeditor’s job is to meet the needs of the three interested parties: the author, the publisher, and the readers.Those three groups: author, publisher, and readers, they all want the same thing. They want to read an error free publication.
And so we have that at Mythcreants. Like… for example, Oren writes a piece, Mythcreants is the publisher, and then we have the readers. And everybody wants to read something that’s informative, entertaining, and error free. That’s the job of the copyeditor. To ensure that.
I borrowed this from Amy Einstein’s copyeditors handbook, but she advocates for four C’s that represent the copy editors main concerns when they’re working: Clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness.
Chris: Could you define coherency a bit for me? Like what is the difference between clarity, coherency, and consistency?
Wes: That will relate a little bit more to the specific types of tasks. But generally coherency is if the parts of the piece are properly correlated. That can relate to the presence of tables, footnotes, references — those kind of things. Clarity is more mechanical errors, like punctuation and syntax
Chris: Right, clarity makes sure you can understand it.
Chris: It sounds that making sure everything is the same is kind of both clarity, coherency and consistency.
Wes: The consistency factor — for a good example — is everything that Mythcreants publishes needs to be made consistent with the Mythcreants style guide.
That’s a big aspect of consistency — a copyeditor needs to check what’s written against the established guidelines. So it is consistent for that publisher and for what that reading audience expects.
Oren: I have a question on that note, actually.
Wes: Yeah, please
Oren: So Wes, in terms of clarity we’ve covered technical errors and typos — using the wrong word — that sort of thing. That definitely decreases clarity. To what extent is it the copyeditor’s job to try to increase clarity if the author is simply unclear?
I recently read an article on storytelling and it purported to tell me the things that I needed to do to make my story work. It spent about a thousand words musing on what story even was and it was very confusing. And there were no technical errors that I spotted though maybe there were some I missed.
And the sentences and the words were all correct, I just couldn’t tell what it was saying because it was like [overly introspective tone] “what is story? Is it when a dog enters a room? [in normal voice] I was like, I don’t… what, what does that mean? I don’t understand. To what extent would it would a copy editor try to address that? Or would they try to address it at all, or would they just let the author write something unclear?
Wes: You just gave me like the perfect segue — I wanted to do a quick quick thing on what copyeditors do not do [Chris laughs] and I think I’ll try to start with like levels here. So what copyeditors do not do; and I’ll try to do this from like biggest level down to like finest level.
A copyeditor is not a developmental editor, also known as a content editor, especially on our website. If there are issues in the overall structure, or the plot, or the organization, or there’s repeated content from one paragraph to the next a copyeditor is not expected to fix those problems. Call them out, sure, but provoke a suggestion? Not necessarily.
That’s why content and developmental editors are so necessary because, Oren, that piece you talked about would have been primed for a content editor to read it and be like [changes voice, pretends to be another person] Sorry, are you intentionally burying your lead or being obtuse? Like is that your point? [reverts to normal voice] The copy editor isn’t trained to ask that question because they’re not trained to propose solutions on that scale.
Chris: I just want to add — because I do a lot of content editing for the blog and especially for guest posts — that would definitely be something that I would catch before I send it on to the copy editor. I make sure I know what points the writer is making and that the whole article has a point, which can be a big problem, and that all the points are in their places before I hand it off.
Wes: Yeah, that’s a great example of something else copyeditors do not do. Copyeditors are not rewriters, ghostwriters, or a substantive editor, which is kind of like, “Hey, I wrote this draft. I need you to edit it and make it finished. This still needs substance. Can you add it in as part of your copy editing?” And the copyeditor should say, “No that is not part of my job. I am not here to rewrite your thing line by line. I’m not doing that.” And so I think that’s also an important distinction here because editing is not writing. It’s completely different skill set.
There’s some confusion there and there’s this idea that “Oh, well, I’m editing this. So if I were the writer, I would have said it this way.” That’s that’s not what copyeditor should do. The copyeditor should look at something and say, “Is this acceptable?” For what’s expected of the copyediting job, the audience, the publisher, the expectations. It’s kind of like an acceptability check.
Also, copyeditors are also not proofreaders because proofreaders, technically, are looking at something that is typeset finished, ready to be displayed. For the Mythcreants example, we’re not in the content management system, it would be if we were having somebody look at the preview versions of the posts and then it was imminently published. Right? So like typesetting details, spacing, a few things like that.
Chris: For the Mythcreants website there’s not a really good analogy to proofreading but, for instance, you’re compiling a big report document that’s going to have a fancy layout — that’s going to go InDesign. Somebody has the text draft for the report and then that gets copy edited and the designer lays out the text in InDesign. Once it’s there in its final visual form, there is a final proofread. Because you can catch things easier when they’re in their final design — seeing in that form changes what you can perceive and pick up on, like some of those visual details, but it’s like a last check before something goes out the door — it should already have been copyedited.
Oren: It’s worth noting that usually a proofreader makes much smaller notes than a copyeditor when the piece has been fully laid out making changes. Because making changes, it’s actually suddenly quite difficult, right? Because if you change a line now like the tip the shape of the text is different and it might not fit in with the visual constraints anymore.So, you know, you’re trying to make as small changes as possible at that.
Chris: Right when I’m working in InDesign, a lot of effort goes into avoiding widows and orphans. A lot of copy editors aren’t going to have InDesign, right? You can’t expect the copy Editor to go change it themselves, which means that you’re having somebody else who has to go in and make all of those changes that are recorded separately.It’s a lot of effort.
Oren: Can we define widows and orphans real quick? Because I don’t think we can count on everyone listening to this to know what that.
Wes: Well also includes stacks as well. That’s another important thing proofreaders check for.
Chris: Basically, what you don’t want is awkward text wrapping — you don’t want a last word left on a page that’s at the end of the section. [Wes laughs] It’s better if you align all the headings neatly, you know where you don’t have a heading start immediately before the end of the page and all of its Texas is on the next page.That would be technically a widow.
An orphan would be, say, at the very end of a section you have a last word or line that is on the next page. So if I’m laying out something in InDesign, I will subtly change the layout to avoid that — enough that it’s hard to detect — but actually make like small inconsistencies in the layout of the document that are hard to detect. It helps to avoid having that kind of like awkwardness happen.
Wes: The other awkwardness you can encounter are stacks, and stacks are just the same word on the left margin that are repeated at the start of each line. EG, the the the. You would also have the designer change that or the proofreader would note that the designer should fix it
Oren: Or it could be the word stack that’s repeated. And then you would have a stack stack and it would be amazing. You would have to leave it at that point — you’re required by law to leave that. [laughs]
Wes: All this talk to is important to get across that the copy editors are 100% not designers and they should not be expected to weigh in on any of this. It gives me heart palpitations thinking about this no. [In exaggerated fearful, humorous tone]No no no, that’s not my job. [Reverts to normal voice]
Let’s see… another broad thing I can talk a bit about is that copy editors in general should subscribe to the following beliefs, framed as commandments. I’m going to draw from AB Einsten’s copyeditor’s handbook just because I like the way she writes. But these are the things that all copy editors generally subscribe to: Thou shalt not lose or damage part of the manuscript — fairly straightforward.
Chris: Is that still a big concern or is that mostly from when it was all in print?
Wes: It’s a big concern now depending on how you’re managing your digital files, especially maybe not saving the right file correctly or losing record of your edits or file. Yeah, file mismanagement is still a pretty big problem.
And depending on what publisher you’re working with they might not use something as friendly as WordPress. They might insist on emailing you back and forth word docs and then maybe somebody doesn’t have Microsoft Word… and then you have to yeah, it’s it can be terrible.
Oren: If you’re not careful you can cause some problems by too many track changes. Stacks can get hard to keep track of.
Wes: Oh, yeah. Let’s see: Thou shalt not miss a critical deadlines. Obviously makes sense. Thou shalt not inadvertently change the author’s meaning, or even vertently change the meaning. Just don’t change the author’s meaning — make sure that you’re not editing too much. It’s not your piece of writing. Finally the last one and this is the one that we always talk about is: don’t introduce error.
I think that’s that. I didn’t do ‘thou shalt’ because it’s the clearest one. If you’re a copyeditor and you introduce a problem that is the gravest sin that you can possibly commit. It’s not your job.
Chris: It’s easy to happen accidently. If you don’t step back and read the whole paragraph when you’re correcting a problem you won’t realize the word you added now is redundant with another word nearby. It’s actually surprisingly easy to do that if you’re not paying close attention
Wes: You’re absolutely right. It’s tough because when we’re editing someone else’s work, we’re tempted to just think , “Oh, it would just be better. It would flow better this way.” Then you might introduce an error by doing something that didn’t need to be done. I think that’s something people can lose sight of
Chris: If you don’t mind Wes, I’d like to go into as a perspective of somebody who is not a copyeditor but has managed some copyeditors. It’s worthwhile to go into what the differences are between different types, especially since a lot of writers have to choose who they’re going to hire as a copyeditor, but without knowing much about copyediting.
So the writer without much knowledge finds a copyeditor and goes, “Well, they had a degree and said they had experience; so I just sent them my book and I’m assuming it came back good.”
Generally, in my experience, and of course you can add to this one Wes, some copyeditors are more sensitive than others.
Wes: That’s true. That’s definitely true.
Chris: Some find a lot more problems and things to fix in a document that other copyeditors do. And this is a pretty big deal. Copyeditors individually can train themselves to be more sensitive and find more things. But if you are working with a copyeditor that’s not a thing that you can fix.
So if you want a copy editor that’s going to make more changes and catch more issues, you have to look for a copy editor that actually notices problems.
Wes: I would interject though. In theory, the copyeditor should agree on the type of copyediting that the piece deserves. I think some copyeditors can’t quite help themselves. If they’re contracted to do a light copy, they will do medium. If they’re contracted to do medium, they will probably do heavy. So I think that sensitivity is a lack of impulse control right there.
Like, if I know that I’m doing a light copy edit I will see something that could be shorter, pithier, and better but I won’t tell the author because it’s not my job. I didn’t tell them I was going to do this, so I’m not going to do it.
Chris: For sure, having that kind of restraint is also important on the other end. If you’re really sensitive knowing when not to change a problem because that’s just not your task. You know, that’s not what you’ve been hired to do. But I’ve also many copyeditors on the other end who let things pass by.
Another thing to look for in a copyeditors that some copyeditors are just better at problem solving than others.Sometimes sentences are tough to fix. Especially when you’re trying to preserve the voice of the writer and the flow of the paragraph and finding that perfect solution — it’s hard. Some copyeditors are great finding that perfect solution and others struggle a bit more.
Wes: I’d like to add to that. I’m going to come back to the types of copyediting. If you’re doing a light copy edit, you can point things out. If you’re doing a medium copy edit, you can point things out and offer a suggestion. If you’re doing a heavy copy edit you can make the change. The quality of the changes depends on the editor’s level of experience, their genre familiarity, and their general writing skill. But yeah, you’re definitely right to point out that some are more comfortable doing that than others,
Chris: Right. And sometimes it’s just it’s troubleshooting — it’s hard to think of the perfect solution.
Wes: Yeah. And if you’re doing freelance work and you’re in copyediting you need to value your time accordingly. Being a problem solver is great and offering suggestions is great, but only if you’re being compensated appropriately. If you are contracted for a line edit you are you do not offer suggestions.That’s not part of the deal. You should get paid for that. That’s just something I think is important. It’s a it’s a skill that’s in demand that needs to be compensated appropriately
Chris: For sure. Definitely, copyeditors need to be paid for the time. When it’s subjective there are times when it’s better to mark a sentence and make a suggestion where it’s fuzzy if you should be just changing it or suggesting than it is to spend a bunch of time problem solving. Because that’s costing the client money, and a lot of times they want to save that money. It’s better to point it out and let them do it than it is to spend too much time with one sentence because we’ve got to manage cost too.
Oren: On that note is a small thing; if you’re an author, don’t try to get a copyedit from your beta readers. Unless your beta reader happens to be a copy editor, in which case, pay them.
It’s like trying to get someone you know to copyedit for free because they know grammar good. It’s not going to work out. You’re going to get a substandard copyedit at best.
Wes: That’s a really good point. Like editing is just it’s not free, right? That’s just the current reality and trying to get it for free generally leads to poor results.
One thing to add, Chris, to your note there about problem-solving suggestions. If you’re out there listening and you’re a copyeditor but don’t consider yourself a strong writer, you know, a suggestion doesn’t have to be a proposed revision. Sometimes it can just be helpful to clarify what’s at issue instead of just writing ‘awkward’ as a comment. That’s not helpful.
Chris: Right, which brings me back to communicating. It’s important for editors to be good communicators, but some are better than others.
You as a copyeditor are always going to be reporting back to somebody. If you’re leaving a note or suggestion for the author to look at, how you communicate that indicates whether or not they can actually make the edit that they need to.
Make sure you’re giving information the author needs so that they can make the changes that would actually help. And of course, there’s also having you have feedback that doesn’t make the author feel terrible.
Wes: [Laughs] Yeah, never do that.
Chris: Since writers are notoriously sensitive right about their work, so the editor has to tiptoe around their feelings and make sure that they are never too harsh because that can feel super bad on the writers end.
Oren: One thing that I sometimes run into as a problem is: When the editor phrases a suggestion as a question. Eg, I wrote a scene where a character is seeing something and I get a note that says “is that really all they can see?” [Wes laughs]
I start to panic. Did you want me to tell you if that’s all they can see or are you suggesting they should be able to see something else? I don’t know which. Unless you’re actually asking me a question you want an answer to… though usually that’s not the way copyediting works.
Because usually you send it off for a round of copyediting and then you get it back. And unless you have a different situation than what I’m aware of there’s not a huge amount of back and forth. So just be aware that statements are easier for me to handle than a question mark.
Wes: And more helpful. Right? A good copyeditor, when preparing to send the manuscript back to the writer should, at least this is how I think about it, should not expect to need to get anything back from the author other than thank you. Everything else in the copy-editing report or the edited manuscript should be clear enough that the writer doesn’t need to ask the editor any questions — they just get it.
As a copyeditor, I should get it to the state where I feel like it’s complete because that means that all the queries are written accurately and consistently. Maybe you’ve provided a little paragraph kind of summarizing the general flow of the piece or any areas where you thought of particular like notes for feedback.
Just guide a writer’s attention. I’ve worked with some people that don’t do that and it just ends up with more back and forth, more communicating, more things get dropped. I’m really glad you brought up communication Chris because like that is definitely something copy editors do a lot of.
Chris: Editors have to be good communicators. And Wes, what do you think of prescriptiveness? Do you find that there’s a big divide between editors and how prescriptive or not prescriptive they are. I feel like there’s a divide but I don’t feel like I’ve seen it in action.
Wes: I know that there is… because Twitter. [Chris laughs] And you know, my personal feelings on the matter aside, I don’t think it matters. Yes, you can have your own thoughts, but what publisher are you working for? I’m sorry, but are you publishing this according to the style guide for this publisher? It doesn’t matter what you think — your job is to make it consistent with the style guide.
Chris: So it’s usually not up to the copyeditor how prescriptive they are. It’s up to whoever’s hiring them.
Wes: Yeah, I don’t disagree with anything on the Mythcreants style guide. If I did, it wouldn’t matter; I would still make sure that each blog post matched it. I’m not in charge, it’s not my job to quibble about little things like that.
That’s what Twitter is for — people can go in with their grievances there.
Chris: I’ve ran into some copyeditors and when I’ve encountered this it hasn’t been with like seasoned professionals. So it might be something to watch out for in new ones. Some copyeditors work harder than others to preserve the author’s style while others are likely to stomp over the original intent. Even a copy editor who’s trying really hard to preserve intent has difficulties because sometimes writers aren’t clear — they don’t actually know what they meant.
I have seen people that we’ve had come to Mythcreants, and every blogger considers their voice really important — their name goes on it — it needs to be there feel like their work. There have occasionally been some people who have been a bit too heavy handed when they shouldn’t have been.
Wes: A couple months ago, I went to the Hugo House in Seattle. There was a really interesting course on editing fiction. The person who led the session, I hope I’m getting her name right, was Fiona McRae. She works for Copper Creek publishing out in Port Orchard and they do like poetry and things like that; and she said something that stuck with me so much it because it really captured editing.
She said, “I’m an editor because I don’t really have a whole lot to say. I just want to help you say whatever you want to say as best you can.” It was like ahh [ahh being that sound you make when you strongly relate to something]. I love that so much because I feel that way. I don’t have a whole lot of strong opinions or feel the impulse to write my own post, but I love reading the guest bloggers and your guys’ posts and doing my best to contribute to like getting your voice and vision out there. I think that should be the role of all copyeditors, to subscribe to that mantra.
Oren: One thing that I just wanted to quickly mention because we’re running low on time here, but I think it’s for the people I’ve met who were like, “I’d like to be a copy editor” didn’t really know this.
It’s not just a matter of checking the style guide. Right, knowing the style guide is important, but even when you’re looking at basic technical errors that look like they can be resolved by looking in a style guide, they can’t always be. Sometimes a sentence is just awkward and you have to try to make judgment calls that way. When you’re dealing with technical errors that you can check in a style guide there still a matter of developing an eye of knowing when you need to check the style guide.
Because if you don’t have that eye you’re going to check the style guide every time you see a new word and that’s just not feasible — it’ll take way too long.
Wes: I have one suggestion. It’s tedious but useful if somebody is interested in developing that skill. I did this for my first year when I really got into copy editing as a job. It is; have a notebook and every time you look something up write it in that notebook.
Oren: [Appreciatively] Mmm.
Wes: It’s a really good way to improve like make you feel a little bit better about spelling words and certain capitalization things. If you have to look it up you might as well write it down because you’ll probably end up looking it up again, but at least you’ve taken one little extra step to try to lock it in your brain.
Although it is tedious, it’s like exercise I guess; hard work, but it pays off eventually.
Oren: Plus you have a notebook that you get to write things in and you look very sophisticated.
Wes: [Chuckling] That’s that’s a super good point.
Oren: Alright. With that, we will call this episode to a close. Those of you at home feeling we have piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. I will talk to you all next week.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.