When I was working with the designer of my new branding and website, I asked him not to use red. Instead we decided on orange. Much as I love the colour red (when I was small, I could imagine little more deficient than a box of crayons lacking a crimson or a scarlet), it is a complicated colour for an editor: it signifies warning, error, admonishment, correction. It evokes a pen poised to cross things out. All the things you might imagine would turn us copyeditors on. But really, they don’t. Or at least, they shouldn’t.
The most fundamental thing I’ve learned in my time as an editor has nothing to do with swallowing a particular style guide, or knowing how to run Find and Replace without ending up with weird words like coatpang or Jackilometresan. No, it’s this: I used to start an editing job by looking for what I could change, but now I start by looking for what can stay the same.
The reason is not that I’m lazy, although I’m all for working smarter rather than harder. Rather it is about seeing my editorial role as being supportive rather than destructive. I’m not here to interrogate the author in a way designed to make me look super-knowledgeable and them feel small. In almost any given situation, I know that the author knows a lot more about their subject than I do. And they’re the one with the message, not me. All I’m doing is helping to let that message out.
Missing the point (while getting excited about the fact that it’s italic)
When copyeditors get together, sometimes we joke, a little furtively, about the geekiness of our profession. Look at us! See how we can whip ourselves into a frenzy over inconsistent hyphenation! Watch us weed out one stray italic full stop in a manuscript of 150,000 words! Behold as we eliminate subject/verb disagreement! Marvel at our self-awareness: we do all this knowing just how insignificant it is in the grand scheme of things! We’re a self-effacing bunch, or we couldn’t do what we do, but this humblebragging can be our undoing. At times I’ve joined in with this too, but it makes me uncomfortable. What we might laughingly deride as mere nerdiness is at the very heart of removing barriers between message and reader. Whoever that reader happens to be.
Our work is not about telling the author that they got it wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with text that contains three different presentations of the word multistorey, after all, or the word copyeditor for that matter. Or initials that are sometimes separated by full points and spaces, and sometimes not. Or headings that are a mixture of title case and sentence case. None of this is life-or-death – the text would still be understandable if these anomalies were allowed to remain. And the reason we copyeditors apologise for ourselves and our perceived pedantry comes down to this: deep down we suspect that no one but us would actually care about any of this.
But professional editors exist – and you need one – because actually, readers do care. Even if they don’t realise they care, they care. Our work matters – not because it shows how clever we are, how detail-oriented, how focused. It matters because it helps people read what others have written. It matters because it facilitates communication on a very basic level.
The thing about published text – whether it’s in a book, a newspaper, a website, a leaflet, an app, a brochure, the packaging on food, wherever – is that it needs to look real. If it’s not credible, the reader won’t buy it. Or, they might buy it, but they’ll come to regret it. They’ll perceive it to be of less worth. They might even tell other people how much they regret buying it, and just how worthless they find it to be.
So what makes a text look real? And what can copyeditors do to help authors achieve this?
First, it’s not about every reader, or even one reader, noticing the kinds of details that get copyeditors hot under the collar. It’s more about cultivating a generalised sense of trust. A feeling that the person responsible for writing the text, or publishing it, gives a damn.
If a text contains inconsistencies, or formatting errors, or spelling mistakes, the average reader might stumble, without being able to put their finger on quite why. They might sense that the text looks messy. Incomplete, somehow unfinished. They might be so disturbed by this that they stop reading. And just like that, the message is lost.
This is why professional editing goes beyond consistency of punctuation, spelling, hyphenation. It goes beyond upholding commonly understood conventions of grammar. It goes beyond formatting, structure and hierarchy of information. It’s really about building a world that a piece of text belongs in. And it’s about asking, can the text pass in that world? Does it ring true?
A copyeditor therefore needs a broad understanding. Not necessarily of the specific subject of the text. More an innate understanding of what a piece of text that might appear in a particular world would look like. What does a journal article look like, for example? What does a novel look like, or a book of poetry? What does a press release look like? What does a website look like? What does a public information leaflet look like? What does propaganda look like? What can be done to this raw text to make it conform to type? To make it work within the norms of the world in which it is destined to exist?Not every text needs to fit a particular genre or type, of course. If that were the case, nothing new could ever happen. But everything that is produced is building on some kind of precedent. And a way to appeal to your readers is by making it easier for them to accept your text. Making them less likely to question its legitimacy. Simply put, they are more likely to receive your message, and believe it, if there are no subliminal cues preventing them from doing so. And that is why professional editing matters.