The heavens must be aligned today because I’ve been reminded twice in the past few hours of the importance of copy editors.
For those who don’t know what a copy editor is let me just say this: A good copy editor is to a piece of writing what the Secret Service is to the President: protection of the most profound type. She (and most are women) stands between excellent writing and disaster. She is the one who asks if you really meant to say that direct medical costs for asthma in the United States are $11 million a year, or $11 billion a year (the latter). She is the one who realizes you skipped a reference and now none of your endnotes are in the right place. She is the one who knows that you really mean to write multiple sclerosis, not muscular dystrophy.
Bottom line, she is the one who can see the trees in the forest when the writer can barely even see the forest anymore.
For no matter how many times a writer edits a piece, even, as I do, printing it out and doing a final edit on hard copy or, as my friend Alisa does, reading it out loud, a copy editor will improve our work every time.
It took me many years to come to that realization. When I was a young know-it-all newspaper reporter at my first job and the copy desk called at night with questions, I took it personally, certain that I must be terrible at my job if they found even a single mistake. Sometimes I even hid from their phone calls (this was in the days before cell phones) but since the all reporters hung out at the same bar, they always found me.
Today I just wish I had enough money and time to send everything I write for every client (and this blog) through a copy editor before hitting “send.” These incredibly anal, unbelievably organized, astoundingly exacting professionals who carry four or five style guides in their heads and can debate endlessly about the appropriate use of conjunctives and adverbs have saved my butt countless times over the past 25 years. They are my heroes.
But copy editors, like good writing, are becoming a somewhat endangered species. They’re often the first to go during layoffs at newspapers and magazines (as you probably know if you count the errors in the headlines and copy these days). Book publishers often pay so little that the only editors they can find are newbies who wouldn’t know an editing mark if it bit them on the red pen. And web sites. . . don’t even get me started.
Angela Hoy, who owns a print-on-demand publishing company and whose weekly newsletter on freelancing/writing I’ve been reading for nearly 10 years, covered the topic beautifully this week. She specifically took aim at the so-called “content” aggregators that pay pennies to writers to produce content they can sell to other sites. A couple of her examples from the headlines alone: Loosing Weight the Way Nature Intended and My Daughters Severe Nut Allergy.
My favorite example of the need for copy editors, however, was the marked-up memo from the Toronto Star about, of course, how the newspaper no longer needs its own copy editors!
I always know the client I’m working with is a true professional when she has a copy editor standing by for my copy. The ones that scare me are the ones who expect me to copyedit my own writing. I’m a writer, I tell them, not a copy editor. The two are about as similar as a five-star restaurant and a fast-food drive through window. I can edit the copy for hours. . . but that’s not copyediting.
I worry that in our quest for quantity at the lowest possible cost we’re forgetting about one tiny thing: quality. And in my mind, you can’t have quality without the sometimes annoying, extremely nitpicky, always welcome questions of a good copy editor.