The Many Faces of Editing

The heavens must be aligned today because I’ve been reminded three times 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 references are in the right place. She is the one who know that you really mean to write multiple sclerosis, not muscular dystrophy.

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 single time.

It took me many years to come to realization. When I was a young know-it-all newspaper reporter at my first job and the copy desk would call at night with questions, I took it personally, certain that I must be terrible at my job if they found a single mistake. Sometimes I even hid from their phone calls (this was in the days before cell phones) but since all the reporters hung out at the same bar, they always knew where to find me.

Today I just wish I earned enough money and had enough time to send everything I write for every client through a copy editor before turning it into the client.

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 those 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 self publishing company and whose weekly newsletter on freelancing 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. Some of her examples from the headlines alone:

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