What I Do As a Copy Editor


By Mick Spillane


I am the factotum of the written word, of the publishing world. I read every document, every manuscript word for word, line by line, looking for mistakes in grammar, poor syntax, usage, and spelling. I adhere, if any, to any style.


I make sure language, wording is not sexist or prejudiced. I watch for overuse of slang or jargon, for potentially libelous statements, I fact check. I query any statements that seems inaccurate, muddled, or track down missing facts. I may have to comb through several reference books or Web sites, even making phone calls to check for accuracy. But my first responsibility is to read through the document to evaluate the writing.


My next function is to be the proofreader. I proofread to catch minutiae or incorrect use of ellipsis points. I have to check the consistency of footnotes and that table numbers in the text match the tables, and query the author if a character’s hair is suddenly a different color. I make sure you do not use the phrase, “Suddenly, all hell broke loose.”


I do have to sweat the small stuff.


The way the state of publishing is, as a copy editor, I’m the only person who does extensive work on a manuscript. I have to sweat the big stuff, too. Consequently, I have to do substantive/developmental editing as well as the copyediting, even ghostwriting.


It is absurd to even blame copy editors for the decline of the written word (I personally blame Steve Jobs. That goes for music). Writers want their manuscripts or documents, regardless of the size, or the shape it is in, copyedited in two days.


To master the art of copyediting requires a unique awareness and an instinct that comes only with years of experience.


“Good editing” has become an obsolete term. But there is a general deterioration in the quality of writing, which makes editing difficult. I often encounter the author or publishing house that only requests that the manuscript be “proofread.” As if that will solve all the problems. Ninety-nine percent of the time the manuscript needs to be completely rewritten—yeah, that might be a good start. Some days I’m consumed in horrid prose.


It is the pressure of the bottom line.


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