The art of copy

Who are copy editors and what do they do anyway? The short answer is that they are the secret heroes of publishing. They use a keen eye to spot grammatical errors and typos. In addition, a copy editor knows how to find and fix factual errors. The best copy editors also call attention to faulty logic, or holes in an article, or paragraphs in the wrong place. And the very best are sentence magicians, turning clunky collections of words into musical phrases. Some of my own favorite memories of copyediting come from my time on the copy desk of the Hearst’s old San Francisco Examiner, where 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 copyediting war stories in my books—how the passive voice can help in headline writing, and how it takes more than spell check to get nuanced language right. Copy editors know how to use all kinds of tools and resources, like serious dictionaries, usage guides, and volumes of Who’s Who. They rely on Google search. They also know that sometimes they need to pick up the phone and talk to a real person to get the right facts. Copyediting can be a stepping stone to editing, and mastering copyediting skills will surely help polish your writing. What’s even better: once you learn a little about the craft, you join a tribe that includes not just copy editors and librarians and wordsmiths, but readers who really care about grammar and precision and the beauty of phrases. (I’m always struck when I’m interviewed on the radio by the number of callers who want to discuss the fine points of language.) Take a look at “Copyediting Resources” in “Cool Tools” for the books I’ve found most useful. You may have to look around for courses in copyediting, but both UC Berkeley Extension and Harvard Extension School have credible programs in editing, and some courses are available online. I’ve also gathered resources from the Web to help you get started: What is copy editing and what makes a great copy editor Are copy editors born or made? On style and style guides Test your copyediting skills with a quiz from the Subversive Copy Editor And another quiz by the NY Times Now that we've gotten through all that, can someone tell me why the noun copy editor is spelled open, while the verb copyediting is closed?


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