Confessions of a copyeditor

[intro]If your writing is going to be published, it’s more or less inevitable that at some stage it will be subjected to the attentions of a copyeditor. You may feel apprehensive or defensive about this. It’s not easy to welcome the thought of your prose being meddled with by a nitpicking stranger who is ignorant of, and possibly even indifferent to, all the love and care you’ve lavished upon it.[/intro]

But the experience may turn out not to be entirely painful. In fact, you may find yourself actually enjoying it. The copyeditor will probably be the first outsider to read your book. His (I’ll call him he, although it’s as likely as not that he’ll be a she) may therefore be the first unbiased opinion it receives. And he wants it to be good. It’s no fun for him to have to slog through several hundred pages of repetitive, muddled prose, every other sentence of which cries out to be rewritten. His only ambition is to help your book to be as accessible, accurate and well-expressed as possible.

Not only is he one of your book’s first readers; he could also be the closest reader it will ever have. He may come to know your style – and even the way you think – as well as, or better than, you do yourself. He’ll notice tics or idiosyncrasies that you’re unaware of, words or phrases that crop up a little too often for comfort. When he points out that the first word of your first paragraph is a dangling participle, or that you’ve unwittingly perpetrated a ribald double entendre that risks making frivolous-minded readers snigger, just think: would you rather it was he who did so, or a snide reviewer who will use it as a stick with which to belabour your whole book?

If (as, sadly, is increasingly rare these days) your copyeditor works in-house at your publisher, you may come to regard him as a valuable ally, a kindred spirit within a bewilderingly monolithic-seeming corporation. Apart from anything else, he can be an important advocate of your book to those who will actually have to sell it. When a jaded copy editor praises something he’s been working on, you can be sure that his colleagues will take notice. Which can’t hurt.

So, as an author, how do you make this important person feel well-disposed towards you? Actually, it’s not very hard. To start with there are a few simple, obvious things you can do. You’re probably doing them already, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t.

First, don’t be lazy. Don’t trust to your vague memories of quotations, names or dates. If you do, you’re bound to get the odd one wrong. As long as it’s only the odd one, your copyeditor will forgivingly fix any such slips. But if error is piled upon error, he’s likely to start feeling less indulgent, and to adopt an increasingly beady-eyed attitude to your work.

Second, avoid the temptation to bespatter your text with impressive-sounding words of whose meaning you‘re less than certain. ‘Jejune’ is not a sophisticated synonym for ‘immature’, and ‘exponentially’ is not just a fancy way of saying ‘a lot’. A crescendo is not a loud noise, and ‘disinterested’ does not mean the same thing as ‘uninterested’. You may argue (and you may believe) that language is a fluid, vibrant, living thing, and that it’s actually a cause for celebration that the meanings of words change over time. But even as you are saying this, your copyeditor may silently be thinking that if you don’t care enough about language to respect its subtleties and shades of meaning, what business do you have expecting other people to read what you write?

Third, there’s punctuation. This may seem a trivial – indeed an anal – matter, and scarcely deserving of your attention. But if your punctuation is careless or slovenly, your writing will feel woolly and imprecise.

Pay due attention to those small details, and some of the larger things will tend to look after themselves. And your copyeditor, your first reader, may also become your first fan.

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