Copy editors: worth their weight in gold

Recently, one of my young cousins emailed me to ask about copyediting resources. As the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, she had decided to institute a new step in the paper’s editing process.

My many emails exchanges with her made me realize that while I’ve blogged about literary style and good editing in the past, this little-understood and vastly under-appreciated part of the publishing process deserves some attention.

I have some hilarious memories of copy editing, from my years at Wired, where we debated whether or not to put a hyphen in email as though our lives depended on it. (Or rather, our reputations.)

Before that, I sharpened my metaphorical blue pencil on the copy desk of the Hearst San Francisco Examiner. There I worked with a trio of veterans named Tommie, Scotty, and Smiley. They had quirky habits but minds like databases, and they taught me how to read a uniform to determine a naval officer’s rank, and to take out the comma in Papua, New Guinea. (No, Papua is not a capital city.) They also taught me to always make sure that percentages in a story add up to 100. I’ve included a few of my copy-editing war stories in my books—how the passive voice can help in headline writing, and how it takes more than a computer’s spell check to get nuanced language right.

I had been a stringer, or freelance reporter, for the Examiner before I got my job on the copy desk. When my favorite metro editor heard I’d be joining the team, he said, “Good. Reporters are a dime a dozen, but copy editors are worth their weight in gold.” A copy editor might ask me to take the cliché out of that sentence, but my editor was right.

If you’d like more of a peek into this often-hidden world of editing, take a look at my latest post in “Talking Shop” for a primer on copyediting. Look at the list of books in “Cool Tools” to give your own copyediting a kick.

And for more on copyediting in the context of other kinds of editing, this essay on “The Art, Craft, and Cost of Editing” might help.

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