I’ve started a new blog that will be dedicated solely to all things copy editing — rants, tips, advice, you name it. Here’s my first post.
We copy editors have a strange job.
In most professions, you’re noticed when you’re successful. Your supervisors and coworkers can look at your work and congratulate you on a job well done.
A copy editor’s sign of success, however, is remaining invisible. We’re noticed when — and as a general rule, only when — we miss something, when we blow it, when a headline goes to print making a declaration about “Muslin Rage” in the Middle East rather than “Muslim Rage.”
Nobody can tell when we corrected a writer who mixed up “discrete” and “discreet.” Nobody can tell when we caught that a last name was spelled differently in the caption and the story. Nobody can tell when we attach that dangling modifier to the proper subject. And because, if we copy editors do our jobs well, we remain invisible, we’re often thought to be superfluous.
In a world going increasingly digital, print publications are struggling, and it only makes sense to cut back on those whose work seems inconsequential — like an unnecessary luxury. Naturally, then, copy editors are the first to be dismissed from newsrooms and publishing houses of every size and level of prestige.
It takes something of a masochist to survive and thrive as a copy editor. Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to have stories come across our desks that need little more than a polish — add a comma here, change a word there. But more often, working on a story is equal parts pleasure and pain.
“Why don’t people understand grammar?” we wail. “Where is this reporter getting her rules of capitalization? Why are there so many em-dashes? Has he never read a stylebook? What does this paragraph have to do with anything?”
Yet even as we lament and tear our hair and gnash our teeth, our hearts swell with pride. Every mangled sentence that we straighten out like a mess of Christmas lights after a year of storage is Botox to our senses of self worth (or, we admit, to our smugness). A story is filed by an infamously shoddy writer, and we both dread and can’t wait to take up our swords red pens.
For at least eight hours a day, we subject ourselves to the emotional paradox. When we most hate our work, that is also when we most love it.
For all this, a copy editor must be content to do without recognition. We’ll never win a Pulitzer or even so much be congratulated by someone on the street — “Hey, I read X article on Y subject in Z publication. Nice editing!”
Instead, we’ll watch from the sidelines as writers accumulate awards and accolades for pieces that were, in most cases, very much a team effort. This is not something we’re bitter about (well, usually). It’s just a fact, and we accept it. We don’t do this for the glory
So why do we do it? We can’t deny that in part, we enjoy the sense of superiority we gain from turning coal to diamonds on a daily basis. Superiority, though, is not enough to be worth the abundance of frustration and dearth of appreciation. What really drives us, at the root of things, is a pure, unquenchable love for words.
We love the way words can be woven into an innumerable variety of tapestries.
We love that the same words, arranged differently, can report a murder or speak poetry.
We love that words both shape and are shaped by our culture.
We love that the use of words can and must be subject to books of rules, but simultaneously can and must be fluid and unfettered.
We love that words can both harm and heal; that they can proclaim the truth or silence it or warp it; that a multitude of them or very few can be used to articulate the same idea.
Jokingly, we’ll call ourselves “grammar Nazis.” It’s a fitting nickname, because we do love to enforce the rules, and we can be unforgiving when we do so. But beneath that, we’re just dazzled, enraptured, intrigued, inspired by the power of words, and we feel, somehow, protective of them.
For us, editing is not just another step in the process of manufacturing a product. Instead, it’s more like guarding a precious treasure that we don’t want to see marred or taken for granted or misused. Or we see ourselves as curators of a beautiful art collection, one we want others to appreciate and love as much as we do.
This is what words are to us. And this is why we edit.