« 'Words' | Main | Bracket creep »

Those damn copy editors*

Oh, you slave over your article or your book, pouring a life’s knowledge into it, sweating blood to achieve shapeliness, like Michelangelo pulling the young David out of a block of marble. It is done. And then you find that some cretinous git, some literal-minded parser, some copy editor has taken your text in his thick fingers and mangled it.

That is pretty much the burden of a recent blog post by someone named Seth Godin:

Just got some work back from a new copyeditor hired by my publisher. She did a flawless job. She also wrecked my work. Totally wrecked it.

By sanding off every edge, removing every idiom, making each and every fact literally correct, she made it boring and dry and mechanical.

If they have licenses for copyeditors, she should have hers revoked.

Unfortunately, Mr. Godin does not supply a single instance of the copy editor’s destructiveness, so it is up for discussion whether he is an injured author or a fulminating boor. (The other texts at his blog do not suggest that revision of his prose would be a cultural catastrophe.)

Of considerably more substance is a comment on a Language Log post, “The food processor of copy editing,” that quotes a letter in which the novelist Joan Aiken complains about a copy editor. “... I have thought quite a number of times about it before I put down ‘“Hark at the wind,” shivered George’ and so have not the least wish to see it changed to ‘“Listen to the wind,” said George with a shiver.’”

A similar indictment was handed up in Jacques Barzun’s “Behind the Blue Pencil” essay, of which I’ve written previously. These are charges that have to be taken seriously.

Of course, this problem is slowly resolving itself as publishers and newspapers shed their copy editors. Who needs them, anyway? They generate no revenue; they just slow things down; they think they have some kind of right to hold an opinion about your work; they always tell you what’s wrong, never what’s right. Besides, they’re a little peculiar.

But it is well to consider that the Princeton University Press has recalled and is reprinting a book by a faculty member of the City University of New York because of an embarrassing quantity of errors in spelling and grammar that were not caught and corrected by the copy editor.

And it might be entered into the discussion that writers are occasionally given to ludicrous effects from which a copy editor can rescue them.

It’s up to the employer — editor, publisher, client — to establish the standards expected of copy editors, including how aggressively the task is to be pursued. It’s up to the copy editor to exercise judgment, not just about the text but also about his or her role.

What have you been commissioned to do? If you’re being told just to check the spelling and keep your opinions to yourself, do that. The kind of shop that tells you that isn’t interested in your opinions anyhow.

What are you working on? Genre counts. If, for example, it’s a novel, you’ll be expected to give the writer more latitude than you would for a newspaper article. Being a copy editor doesn’t mean that you get to sharpen a gross of Eberhard Faber col-erase carmine reds and begin setting Finnegans Wake to rights.

Who’s the author? It matters whether you’re dealing with a veteran or a tyro. God help you if you take the same approach with Jacques Barzun that you do with Seth Godin.

Why aren’t you talking to the writer? You have a telephone, don’t you? E-mail? A desk within a day’s walk of the writer’s? The more extensively you edit, the better it is to maintain some level of contact and consultation with the writer. It’s a working relationship, and relationships require work.

But if you have given these questions due consideration and you’re right, stand your ground. Just remember that no one is always right.


* House style at The Sun discourages even the milder profanities, but I thought that the sentiment expressed here is so universal that the language might be excused.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (8)


As long as there are sensitive artists (and who isn't a sensitive artist?) there will always be disagreements with editors.

You hit the nail on the head (and feel free to edit that cliche, if you like) when you ask "Why aren’t you talking to the writer?" It's all about respect.

Can't wait to see if Godin strikes back!! (I hope he does!!)

I guess that more than anything, this saddens me. One writer can write something terribly, and it doesn't sour readers on all writers. Yet whenever someone does a lame copy editing job, it's open season for the world to start a-huntin' those varmints and their.... erm, darned?... red pens.

The flip side of that equation, of course, is how many copy editors have to put up with writers stetting what absolutely, positively needs to be changed. I used to have to actually bargain with one of my writers for commas. "I'll let you keep this one in if you let me take that one out." And when you've got danglers and mixed metaphors and other things that just don't work, it's like pulling cats. Or herding teeth. One of the two.

OK, rant accomplished, feel free to stand down.

I am eagerly "Waiting for Godin."

You had me at "peculiar."

Am I a tyro?

How does one earn this level of achievement?


Someone named Seth Godin

John, Seth Godin is no tyro, it would seem; he's the author of the most popular ebook ever, according to the autobiography on his Web log. He is also, according to this same autobiography, an entrepreneur and an "agent of change" -- which apparently is good thing because we can never have enough change.

Since I see no other good place to put this, I must insert my three cents here. Hooray for copy editors and proofreaders! I wish there were more of them, especially when I see words like "nuptuals" (referring to Jenna Bush's) on the Sun's home page today, and typos such as "unecessary" and "prevelance" (in the same paragraph, no less!) in the front-page article on RFID in yesterday's print edition. Thanks for letting me rant.

Here's my copy-editing rant. Once, working in a printing plant as a QC person (not strictly a CE but with most of their duties), I discovered that a caption, on a change in a book revision by a very large nationally-known publisher, didn't match the picture. It showed Mercury astronauts but said they were Apollo crewmen. I told my supervisor, who pulled the copy before printing, but I was then called on the carpet by other managers: "Do you think you know more than the people at X Company or the book's author?"
I did, in fact, but it didn't save me from being chewed out. Of course, later I learned that those same bosses contacted X Company to be safe and questioned the caption error. X Company gratefully notified them a new picture should have been included and thanked them for their diligence in saving them from embarassment.. Management, of course, took full credit for the discovery, never mentioned their deviousness, and never apologized to me, either.
So even when, Mr. copy editor, you're right, you can still be wronged.

As a copy editor myself, I can say that it's important to know the writer as much as possible, in order to understand how best to provide feedback. It is also critically important that the person hiring the copy editor be really clear about what is expected in terms of editing. We can do a simple "white glove" reading and only correct blatant typos and grammar errors, or we can go full throttle into writing style, flow, organization, and word choice. Writers are often very defensive of their work, so the best copy editors are those with a gentle touch and a respectful manner.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected