A Copyeditor’s Rant

During my disappearance from this blog, I spent a lot of my time proofreading, editing, and copyediting.

First, while people tend to use the terms interchangeably:

  • A proofreader checks text for syntax, spelling, punctuation, and other similar errors and corrects them.
  • An editor may do the above, but also will consider the content of the piece, the order of sentences, meaning, style, how the author addresses the audience, and other, deeper issues.
  • A copyeditor deals with text intended for publication – for instance, in a magazine or a book, proofreads it, checks it for accuracy (for instance, are the names of sources spelled correctly?), and then formats the material according to the “house style” of the publisher.

As you can see, each job has slightly different responsibilities. Mostly, I’ve been copyediting the local publication I mentioned in earlier blog posts. In general, I love the job. The hours are flexible (so I’m free to take care of sick kids or errands), and I get to make other writers look good. I’ve developed great working relationships with several of the columnists, thank G-d.

But there are also annoyances. And – without naming names – I’m going to tell you about some of them, because many of the people who read this blog are also writers, and those who aren’t may still be in a position where they have to write something for public consumption. A little awareness about common issues might prove helpful to you.

1. Writers who refuse to accept editing.

Sometimes writers receive the copy I’ve prepared, and they don’t accept my edits. Occasionally, there’s a typo I didn’t catch, or something similar. If they politely point it out – no problem. We fix it and move on.

But there’s another class of writer that drives me crazy: The people who receive extensive edits because their work has significant flaws, and then they complain: “You ruined my style!” “You cut the best part!” “You butchered my article!”

Sure, sometimes an editor goes too far. In such cases, there are ways to communicate their annoyance and even to negotiate a mutually-acceptable draft. But most of the time, if a professional editor has corrected them, it’s because there really was something wrong with their writing.

Tip for writers: Consider turning in your work early and asking to see tracking on the document. Then you can ask why specific changes were made. The editor will likely have time to respond, because the time pressure will be less. It’s likely you’ll learn a thing or two, and over time, if you absorb those lessons, you may see your writing improve and there will be fewer and fewer changes made to your copy.

2. Writers who write without any notion of genre.

Since I’m copyediting a local newspaper, most of the items I edit are articles: news items, local event coverage, “expert” columns. Each one has a specific style. For example, news items and event coverage should contain a lede. The article should not refer to the writer’s personal feelings or reactions. Reporting should be relatively objective, with the subjective content appearing in quotes describing the feelings and responses of witnesses and participants (not the writer). On the other hand, an “expert” column can be in first person, so long as the focus is on the topic on hand, not the writer themselves.

A lot of times, I read fledgling journalists’ news or events articles, and they seem to have confused their job: they send me a personal essay, full of first-person reflections, instead of interviewing witnesses or participants and getting me nice, juicy quotes. The excessive editorialization sometimes tells the reader more about the writer’s opinions than about the actual event.

Tip for Writers: If you are hired to cover an event, cover the event, not your reaction to the event. If you are hired to write an opinion piece or provide expert advice, feel free to share your opinions and feelings, but keep the focus on the article’s topic, not you.

3. Writers who forget whom they are writing for.

A writer should understand the audience they are writing for, and put themselves in their audience’s shoes. What background knowledge do they already have of the subject? What might they not know? Do you have to define pertinent vocabulary? What kind of sensitivities might they have?

Tip for Writers: Don’t assume that your readers are just like you.

4. Writers who lack professionalism.

Being a writer is a job. If you are told to turn material in by a certain date, turn it in by then. Leave enough time that you can check your work and correct mistakes, so that the editors receive relatively error-free copy.

Let’s say you have an article due Thursday for an event that takes place on Monday. On Sunday, place phone calls to event organizers and the like. Make sure you know when to arrive and have transportation/child care/etc. all lined up. At the event, interview participants, take good notes or record details into a device, and double-check the spelling on names of speakers and sources. Write a first draft on Tuesday, check your work Wednesday morning, and turn it later that day. I’d recommend that you pretend Thursday doesn’t even exit. Must mentally move up that deadline.

If you ask to see the edited copy, a) make sure you turn it in AT LEAST a day early, and b) make sure you are checking your email regularly so that you can see the copy as soon as it shows up in your inbox, revise as necessary, and then get it back to the editor again quickly.

Tip for Writers: When you get an assignment, put it on your calendar, then work back to set incremental due dates and put those on the calendar, too. If the editor says use Word, use Word. If the editor gives you a word count, stick to it. Never turn in an article that is showing lots of red or green lines under words. Instead, use those colorful helpers to figure out how to fix your spelling and grammar errors.

5. Non-writers who lack professionalism.

Many of local organizations – schools, charities, and so on – submit updates about events to newsletters and local newspapers and the like. I’m not talking about ads or flyers – more like short news items.

In such situations, local papers are basically running an ad for these organizations, free of charge. They get a couple benefits: free material and a way to connect with their readership (who may very much enjoy about hearing the goings-on of their friends, neighbors, favorite synagogue or charity). But face it: they are publishing an organization’s article and garnering attention for their cause that might have cost the organization actual money had they paid for an advertorial or ad in the same publication.

The least such organizations can do is send material that has been grammar-checked and spell-checked, including the names of people. Do not type the article into a phone or an email, but into a Word Document (or into Open Office Document or into Rich Text Format Document). Revise at least once.

Tip for Non-Writers Writing for their Organization: Don’t make the editors regret doing your organization a favor.

Editors: Do you have any pet peeves?

Writers: Has your editor ever let you know that you’d stepped on one of their pet peeves?

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6 thoughts on “A Copyeditor’s Rant

    • Exactly!!! And now that you’ve told everyone the shortcut, they REALLY have no excuses. (I honestly don’t know if people just turn off their spellcheck and grammarcheck or if they just ignore all the wiggly lines. Unless the word is a name or a foreign word, how can you just ignore bright red and green wiggly lines!?! Doesn’t it bother them?

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  1. I think these days everyone thinks they are a writer, but most have no idea what that means in reality. They don’t understand it’s a craft like any other and that it takes time to develop the skills needed to write compelling stories.

    A few years back, I was editing a monthly magazine and asked one of the writers to research how we handled a particular issue in a previous edition of the magazine and reference how the issue had evolved in the story she was working on. The writer not only didn’t do the research, she completely missed how vital that little bit of history (it only need a few sentences) was to making the story go from ho-hum to a more comprehensive look at this particular concern. Had she done the research, her questions to the people she interviewed would also have been more substantial, garnering stronger quotes and a better understanding the problem at hand.

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  2. I think these days everyone thinks they are a writer, but most have no idea what that means in reality. They don’t understand it’s a craft like any other and that it takes time to develop the skills needed to write compelling stories.

    A few years back, I was editing a monthly magazine and asked one of the writers to research how we handled a particular issue in a previous edition of the magazine and reference how the issue had evolved in the story she was working on. The writer not only didn’t do the research, she completely missed how vital that little bit of history (it only need a few sentences) was to making the story go from ho-hum to a more comprehensive look at this particular concern. Had she done the research, her questions to the people she interviewed would also have been more substantial, garnering stronger quotes and a better understanding the problem at hand.

    Like

    • I agree. Maybe it’s just that people thing being a writer means writing…but it also comprises research, promptness, how you respond to editors, ethical treatment of sources, and other factors which are nearly as important to the profession.

      Liked by 1 person

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