Geras on copyeditors

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2003

“Norman Geras writes”: :

bq. I do not generally hold people in contempt because of their profession, their job or their calling. But copy editors! That is something different. Not as bad, I will grant, as war criminals or child molesters, they nevertheless belong in one of the very lowest categories of human intelligence and indeed morality. You will object that copy editors perform a most useful and necessary function, turning what is often ill-formed and error-strewn text into something more presentable. This, too, I will grant. However, it is no excuse for what copy editors also do – which is to interfere with people’s painfully-crafted stuff when there is no reason whatever for doing so, other than some quirk in the particular copy-editing mind which is at work….

Hmm. As an author, I share some of Norm’s frustrations. Indeed I’ve felt them keenly very recently. But I also once worked as a freelance copyeditor to supplement my then pitiful income as a 0.5 temporary lecturer. I remember having to justify myself to desk editors and production managers and hoping, hoping that they’d give me another book to work on. Most of these people are ill-paid casual workers constantly having to prove their worth. I’m sure that’s where the urge to over-correct comes from — to demonstrate that you _did_ something for that miserable payment.



Don Hosek 10.26.03 at 7:49 pm

I see too much prose which definitely needs a good copy editor. I think the far lower species of human being is the manager who decides to forgo hiring copy editors at all since, after all, Word has built-in spelling and grammar checkers.


Matt McIrvin 10.26.03 at 8:00 pm

I tend to sympathize with copy editors. When I was in college, I held, for a while, the position of punctuation cop for a student magazine. I’m not the most conscientious punctuator in the world, but I soon learned that most of the young writers on the staff had not the slightest clue how to punctuate correctly. The most common mistake, heavily favored over standard usage, was to put the comma after rather than before the word and used to join two clauses. The second most common was blatant misuse of the apostrophe. Through ruthless campaigning I ended up vetting all the body copy in the magazine, but titles and photo captions were constantly slipping past me to the layout people, and we paid the price over and over in misplaced commas and, truckload’s of bungled apostrophe’s.

Perhaps professionals are better about this.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 10.26.03 at 9:01 pm

How interestingly this discussion is framed. Are copy editors, Chris Bertram invites us to wonder, really “one of the very lowest categories of human intelligence and indeed morality,” or is this perhaps a moderate overstatement?

I’ve done copyediting, and I’ve worked with lots of copyeditors. As an editor, I’ve probably had occasion to be annoyed with bad copyedits more often than even the most prolific author. So I have plenty of observations about how copyediting is often handled, and how the (often anonymous) copyeditor gets used as a way of shifting blame for decisions that have actually made by someone else.

But I don’t really feel like being forthcoming in a thread where the basic question is whether, for instance, my wife is “one of the very lowest categories of human intelligence and indeed morality.” Funny about that.


Chris Bertram 10.26.03 at 9:08 pm

Goodness Patrick, what a reaction!

First, Norm’s comments were deliberately over the top and tounge in cheek. Second, I was _standing up for the copyeditors_ . (Or so I thought!) And as you well know, I have the greatest respect for both you and Teresa.


Walt Pohl 10.26.03 at 9:14 pm

I have to agree with Norm here. Copy editors _are_ evil.


Mark S. 10.26.03 at 11:13 pm

Of course, Norm gives away the game when he says that the copy editor’s evil flaw is to “interfere with people’s painfully-crafted stuff.”

Unless you are writing fiction, there is simply no good reason to get upset at about 98 percent of what decent, conscientious copy editors do. Yet people such as Norm continue to insist on blaming the grammatical messenger, rather than working to find verbiage that is both clear and felicitous.

Not that I haven’t met awful ce’s in my day, and not that their awfulness isn’t especially irritating because of its petty and arbitrary quality. But that is all the more reason merely to publish the name of the awful copy editor or contractor of said awful copy editor in question. Sunshine is the surest cleanser for corruption of all kinds.


Jorge 10.26.03 at 11:46 pm

A friend of mine is a copyeditor and I’ve been contemplating scenerios in which I can slip her the mauscript for my novel and still have her be a friend.


Michael Froomkin 10.27.03 at 12:37 am

I have been copyedited often — but only once by a true professional. Usually it’s painful (especially student law review editors…), but that experience convinced me that all my writing could stand the application of good copyediting. I think good copyeditors are hard to find, and probably beyond my means, but a treasure when you have one.


Matt Weiner 10.27.03 at 3:02 am

I was an in-house copyeditor at a biology journal between college and grad school. Most of what I did involved forcing things to conform with house style and correcting obvious grammatical errors. The biggest issue was when hyphens were necessary (“protein-synthesizing enzymes,” if it’s the enzyme that synthesizes the protein) and the difference between “compare with” and “compare to.” My managing editor told me once that she had been unable to sleep because she was worrying about an argument we had over when to use “comparable to.” My biggest triumph, I suppose, was when despite my total ignorance of biology I was able to point out to an author that their figure didn’t match their caption, saving them from publishing the wrong figure.
The experience left me with considerable sympathy for copy editors. I’ve often wished that the philosophy paper I was reading had been gone over by a philosophically knowledgeable copy editor; but copy editors who are actually learned in the subject are rarer than diamonds. Perhaps I should start a business. (And if you are copy editing, it’s good to distinguish orders from suggestions.)


ben wolfson 10.27.03 at 5:45 am

I’m amazed that, in a comments thread about copyediting, no one’s called Chris on “tounge in cheek”.


andrew 10.27.03 at 6:17 am

The worst is either having a friend edit your writing, or editing your friend’s. It’s so personal. If you don’t agree with their helpful suggestions on your piece, or if you secretly wish to rewrite large chunks of theirs…ugh.
I try to avoid it at all costs.


philip 10.27.03 at 6:14 pm

I’m afraid that, according ‘Butcher’ (the fount of all copy-editing wisdom) the hyphen should be there in ‘copy-editor’ and all its cognates. But who gives a toss? Certainly not sensible professional copy-editors like me — all we care about is consistency within a piece. It can be annoying, though, when authors reverse some of one’s changes of a kind and not others of that kind, especially when they get all high-handed about their text having been mucked about with. There’s a very strong correlation between the intellectual quality of the content of a piece and the cleanliness of the copy in which it’s delivered to the publisher — that’s what I’ve found, anyway…

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