What should a good copyeditor do?

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[3 minute read]

If you’re going to hire a copyeditor, you want to hire a good one, right? You don’t want to waste your budget and time on a bad job.

But do you actually know all that a good copyeditor will do? And what a bad one might get up to?

What a good copyeditor does

A good copyeditor should take care of the text – the author’s baby – as if they were a slightly bracing nanny. And they should take care of the author just as well as they do of you, the client.

What do I mean by that?

Well, the text, no matter how much work the author and desk editor have ploughed into it, no matter how precious it is to you, no matter how long you’ve nursed it, no matter how you’ve dotted it all over with your blood, sweat and tears as you’ve toiled away, needs to get ready to make it out into the world by itself.

That’s where I, and other copyeditors, come in. We help the text be ready for publication out there in the big wide world, where anyone and everyone can see it and pass opinion on it.

The text has been indulged rather, while it’s at home. I’m sorry to say it, but it might be just a little bit spoiled! It may well have changed shape, been lengthened, been cut, been reordered and been rewritten, but that’s been done by people in its immediate family circle.

It needs to toughen up a bit, all the while keeping its adorable character and remaining its charming self now you have the content and structure worked out. (OK, that’s enough of the nanny conceit!)

No good copyeditor wants to make a text read like they’ve written it themselves. The author’s voice is so important. Surely no publisher wants to put out a boring clone of a book with all the character driven out of it.

A good copyeditor will:

  • ask questions to ensure they’ve understood the brief and ensure any points not covered are dealt with
  • follow the brief
  • meet the deadline – or give you early warning if the job has problems
  • check before interfering, obeying the mantra of a good copyeditor:

‘If you’re not sure, look it up.

If you are sure, look it up anyway.’

  • smarten the text up (fixing dodgy typing, making heading hierarchies work, sorting out the formatting and instructing the typesetter accordingly, ensure adherence to the house style, or cataloguing any places where deviation from the house style is warranted)
  • make sure the book or article works as a book or article (all the elements are there, and match up where they’re meant to – captions with artwork with illustrations list; notes and references with citations; headings with table of contents)
  • make the text fit to publish (spelling, grammar, punctuation, references all present and correct, and correctly styled, notes making sense and with their markers in the right places)
  • maybe slim the text down (if the text is stuffed with bloviation, or even just has a little too much padding, that will be fixed – and depending on what it is, and the strength of the house style and the nature of the brief, such instances may be raised as queries, or the changes may just happen)
  • maybe fatten the text up (would the reader be better served if an abbreviations list, or a maybe a glossary, were added?)
  • work with the author sympathetically and respectfully towards a common goal (raise queries on substantive changes or problems – a good copyeditor will not bother the author or publisher with every little mechanical fix, but will raise issues of unclear or ambiguous writing, references not working with the citations or quotations, and things that look just plain weird)
  • perform final checks of the minutiae after all the corrections and changes have been incorporated into the text
  • write a decent handover note, including style sheet, word list, tags or styles list, special sorts, and alert the project manager and typesetter to issues that have an impact on how the job continues.

So, what might a bad copyeditor do?

  • promise perfection
  • try too hard, or not try hard enough
  • fail to follow the brief
  • fail to keep to the deadline, and not give you notice they’re running late
  • obey zombie rules (dead/non-existent grammar ‘rules’ (peccadilloes, some might say) that refuse to lie down and stay dead)
  • run an automated spelling and grammar checker, or one of the newer text-‘fixers’ and accept all the suggestions. Noooooooo! Those things get so much wrong! Even Word’s new(ish) Editor function makes bizarre suggestions: Word once told me the declaration ‘I might have been – Cleopatra!’ should in fact be ‘I might have bean – Cleopatra!’, which won’t do at all
  • rewrite too invasively, without discussion or approval, making the text sound like it comes from them, not the actual author, in pursuit of what they perceive as ‘perfection’
  • change things that weren’t wrong, introducing errors
  • assume an unusual word is the wrong word (‘immanent’ to ‘imminent’, perhaps), without looking it up to discover if it is, in fact, the perfect word for the context, perhaps a term of art in that field
  • skimp the job, such as not checking the spelling of people’s names
  • style the references without actually checking if they are correct and complete
  • use the complete caption in the illustrations list
  • write abrasive and/or vague queries for the author
  • send the files back with no, or poor, documentation
  • still take your fee.

How can you be sure of finding a good copyeditor?

Of course, the very easiest way, for humanities and social sciences texts, is to contact me at info@aptwords.co.uk. I’ve been an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (and its predecessor, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders) since early 2013.

The next easiest way is to search the directory of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. Everyone in there is a Professional Member, or an Advanced Professional Member. They have had to prove their worth by way of training, experience and references and, in the case of Advanced Professional Members, provide evidence of a commitment to continuing professional development.

If you hire a Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading member and unfortunately something does go awry, then all members of whatever grade (there are also Intermediate and Entry Level Members) are bound to comply with the Institute’s Code of Practice and there’s a complaints process, which will give you a measure of security.

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