Reading Like a Copy Editor

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I write poems and short stories for fun (except when it’s completely frustrating), but I copyedit the work of others for (a little) profit. Usually when I tell someone what I do for a living, the first question I get is, “What exactly does a copy editor do?” followed by, “how are you different than just, you know, a regular editor?”

My response is that I don’t help the author revise the rough drafts of the book, when characters, plot, and structure are still being formed and shaped. By the time I start working on a project, the editor has already done that, and the manuscript is (hopefully) in good shape. But it still needs a fine-tuning, and that’s where I come in. Not only do I check spelling and grammar, but I watch for consistency, logic, and flow: Wait, on page 3 she was “Catharine” but now on page 23 she’s “Catherine”—which one is it? Or, did this king really rule from 1350 to 1580? Ah, nope, that should be 1380. Better make a note to check that throughout. Looks like this author is really fond of the word “ambiguous”—this is the fourth time she’s used it in this chapter. I’ll suggest she use “unclear” here instead.

What kind of person makes a good copy editor? Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, offers his opinion in his new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style:

“Copyediting is a knack. It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and, hopefully and helpfully, the means to augment it…I do think it’s a craft whose knowledge can only be built on some mysterious predisposition. (The one thing I know that most copy editors have in common is that they were all early readers and spent much of their childhoods with their noses pressed into books.)”

Dreyer’s insightful description suggests how my copy editor and writer sides interact and, I hope, support one another. I’ve been focusing on writing poetry for the last year—and more than any other genre, poetry demands an attention to the sound of language in the ear, and the look and layout of language on the page. (Plus, I was definitely a young bookworm.)

But what do I not do when I copyedit? Well, I don’t scold authors for split infinitives. I don’t have a heart attack if a writer starts a sentence with the word “And.” My job is not to force a writer to align with unbreakable rules. It’s about supporting and strengthening the author’s own voice, through judicious application of grammatical guidelines and common sense.

Although, I’m with Mr. Dreyer on the serial (or Oxford) comma, when he notes that only “godless savages” do not use it.

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