Ode to a Copy Editor

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.

18 Responses to “Ode to a Copy Editor”

  1. Deb Gordon

    Thank you so much, La Maison!

  2. La Maison Canadienne

    Where is the “OMG I think I love you” button?

  3. Deb

    Thanks so much, Kat! And thanks for the copyediting tips. . see why I need you guys??

  4. Kat

    Hi, Deb,

    I too want to add a note of appreciation for your “ode to a copy editor” and for extolling the values of copyediting. There are differing opinions, even among those of us who do this, on how the terms should be spelled. I stick with Merriam-Webster's preference for copy editor as two words and copyediting as one word. I also like that authority's version of health care as two words, but others prefer it as one.

    I was intrigued by your declaration that you are a writer, not a copy editor, since I've worked with some writers who, while being grammatically challenged, think nothing of declaring that they can do copyediting. I've also come across, as you have, people who think writers should be able to copyedit their own work. It scares me, too. There is a difference in our specialties, and I was happy to see you point it out. I feel the same way when I see job descriptions for copy editors with a heavy emphasis on writing!

    Thanks for making my day. In return, here's a tip for you. You should write either “With more than 20 years' experience…” or “With more than 20 years of experience…”

    I spotted at least one other mistake on your LinkedIn profile. Contact me directly for that tip.



  5. Bevotee

    I do appreciate this, as I always do when a good writer acknowledges the art and science of copy editing (that's two words, btw). However, I couldn't help but pick a couple of nits.

    I've been a copy editor and supervisor of copy editors for 25 years, and my guess is that the majority of those I've worked with have been men. I'm smelling a little sexism here.

    Yes, I noticed the point that Slava made above.

    Alisa, you have at least three mistakes, not one. I could overlook the lack of a space before the long dash (and I'll accept the double hyphen, since I don't know how to make a long dash here either). But “two different sides of the brain”? Could there be two same sides? One different? Come on now. “Different” is a terribly over- and misused word.

    And finally and most important, copy editing is, as you referred to early on, much more than knowing correct “grammar” or when to use “there,” “their” or “they're.” The best copy editors have deep, wide knowledge of subject matter — these are the people who can truly keep mistakes out of print and keep a respected writer from stepping in it, as we all are wont to do on occasion.

  6. Rich

    As a copy editor, I'm very glad to see this. We want to help writers, not tear them down. Thanks!

  7. Melissa Bogen

    Thank you, Deb, for recognizing the value of copy editors. I work with writers with the same goal in mind as they have: to publish high-quality pieces that will educate and inspire our audiences.

    Writers have an awesome talent for synthesizing material and creating something new. Copy editors have an equally awesome task of ensuring what's written is accurate, referenced properly, and flows well, while taking into account that the writer is the content expert. The collaboration can produce great results.

  8. Deb

    Slava.. .you are absolutely right and I meant no disparagement in the analogy of a five star restaurant and fast food drive through; just trying to show the differences. I'm sure many CEs write; but the ones I know hate to write and love the role they have in the finished product. See why I need a copy editor??

  9. Slava

    I've been copy editing for 40 years now — as a copy editor, a managing editor, editor in chief, and freelancer. In my youth I'm sure I did “ruin” some computer hardware articles because I didn't know a RAM chip from an electrode and I had to guess what the writer meant to say (back in those days, though, we had the luxury of a full cycle of edit/copy edit/author query/author response/cleanup/final proof). Now that is compressed — I copy edit directly on what the author gives me, and my output is what's printed — no room for mistakes. Thank goodness I do know what I'm doing now.
    An interesting article, this, but I take exception to “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.”
    WTF? Writers are five-star restaurants and copy editors are junk?
    This is a bad bit of writing. It needs a copy editor to question comments such as this. Did it just slip by?
    Also, I'm sure there are copy editors who don't write. Most of us do. It's just that we tend to write a little more carefully.

  10. Cassie Tuttle

    Thank you Debra, for recognizing the benefit — and necessity — of a good copyeditor. We appreciate your praise.

  11. Michele DeFilippo

    Great post! Wish more authors would follow your advice!

  12. Anonymous

    Thank you for defending us! This post does so much to counter the stereotypical animosity many writers feel toward copy editors. The next time I hear about how a copy editor “ruined” a piece, I'll come back here and get some perspective.

  13. Amanda Strong

    I don't know what I'd do without my copy editors. They are the (often) anonymous heros that make our work shine!

  14. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf

    Deb, you've just made a lot of copyeditors very happy. Thank you!

  15. Alisa Bowman

    And see? I have a mistake in my own comment! Where is my copy editor when I need her???

  16. Alisa Bowman

    So true. Every job in the publishing chain is there for a reason. You can't be creative and catch mistakes at the same time–those activities involved two different sides of the brain. I, too, once strived to be a perfect writer, until I realized that perfection was impossible. Hell, these days, I wish I had a copy editor to follow me around and catch and correct the stupid things I say, not to mention the dumb things I write. I don't know the solution for organizations that are strapped for money, but putting out crappy content that is riddled with errors is not that answer.

  17. Deb

    I couldn't agree more! thanks for posting, Corinne!

  18. Corinne Swainger

    Here in the UK, I find copy editors seem to be disappearing in some of the smaller medcomms agencies, and many seem dismissive when I recommed they use one as part of QC procedures. As a result, QC is often signficantly cut, sometimes with dire consequences for the medcomms company and the writer.


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