Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes.

Jeff Reimer at the Bulwark has one of the best descriptions of my former occupation that I’ve come across, The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes:

In general, there are four types of editing in the book world. Developmental editing takes place at the level of the big picture and organizing concepts. In line editing, an attentive editor will help a writer to say what they mean in a voice that best expresses the spirit of their ideas. Copyediting, my own domain, involves cleaving to the precepts of one style guide or another while making precise adjustments to word choice, order, rhythm, and so forth. And proofreading is a safari hunt for any last remaining typos and solecisms.

Because of the apparent overlap between the work of copyediting and line editing, some people conflate them, but those with correct opinions see them as distinct. Developmental editing and line editing both take place early in a book’s development, and they are both messy and more involved. Copyediting and proofreading come into play nearer to the end: They are the finish carpentry of the publishing process. The house is already built; we copyeditors arrive when the tarp is still on the floor to make sure joints and seams are properly aligned, that corners are sharp, and that there are no devils hiding in the details. […]

In my decade-plus of full-time copyediting (I now edit for a magazine), nearly all the books I’ve worked on were unremarkable, and most have been or will be soon forgotten. I edited zero books that people will still be reading in one hundred years. That’s not to say they were all bad, even if most of them were; I edited plenty of good books. It’s just that, in the sad sweep of history, almost all the books ever written and that have yet to be written are mediocre, at best, and destined for few, if any, readers.

But copyeditors read them. It is our job to read them and to bear with them, to fix their shoddy grammar and flag their questionable assertions and spruce up their forgettable prose, and to do it day after day after day.

But how much can a copyeditor really do? I’ll tell you. Judging by another measure I give to my interested interlocutor—whose interest is by now quickly fading—books can be sorted into the following categories: There are terrible books, there are bad books, there are decent books, there are good books, and there are excellent books. A good copyeditor can move the book they’ve been assigned one rung up the quality ladder—at best. You could do more, but a publisher can’t pay you for the time it would take to move a book two rungs.

Given these hard commercial realities, novice copyeditors often need to be induced to give up their notion that every book needs to be perfect. I’ve seen more than one nearly catch fire with frustration and panic because their deadline is the next day, they’ve already spent double the allotted hours on the project, and they’ve edited 27 out of 384 pages. (I have, myself, nearly imploded more than once under similar conditions.) […]

A copyeditor does not formally participate in the intellectual life. He or she is, rather, its adjunct and custodian. A good copyeditor therefore knows when to stop editing, has refined the skill of refraining from the conversation, and knows when not to get involved (which is almost always) in the ideas and the argument. I had been in the book business for a couple years before I realized that at many publishers, copyeditors work in the production department rather than editorial, and aspiring editors who are interested in vision and ideas and decision-making do well to avoid copyeditor positions.

Because when it comes down to it, a copyeditor is a journeyman, a trade worker. The proper domain of knowledge for a copyeditor is not a discipline, but the style guide. In most of American book publishing, that’s the Chicago Manual of Style. Though many copyeditors have some amount of intellectual expertise in a particular discipline, especially if they work on academic texts (as I do), in the end, the job of even a very sophisticated copyeditor is limited to the application of a set of compositional rules to a large body of words on a page, nothing more. […]

But while we copyeditors do not participate in the academic world or in intellectual life, we do listen to it very closely. At least I do. Being a copyeditor means locating yourself everywhere and nowhere, pressing your ear to the doors to a variety of academic disciplines, but not properly entering any of them.

A remarkable education is available to an attentive eavesdropper. While I value the training I received for my degrees, I got my real education copyediting. Not only did I read for a living, but my reading was enormously varied; I listened in on hundreds of conversations. […] I read it all, for eight hours a day, fifty weeks a year, for twelve years. But not all of it made a claim on me. The great privilege and the great downfall of copyediting is that you’re not ultimately accountable for anything but the grammar. You’re a dilettante, a dabbler, a flaneur. You can stroll about uncommitted, browse the arcades, try an idea on for size and take it off when you’re done. Perhaps you throw it in the trash. Or maybe you keep it; you put it in your intellectual wardrobe. It’s up to you! You get to take soundings in a culture or a subculture, to explore points of view you would likely not have investigated otherwise, all while getting paid to fiddle around with someone else’s prose. […]

Publishing trends sometimes interfere with this project of self-making; the books I work on tend to be restricted to either what is new or to secondary or even tertiary glosses on what is old. Textbooks are the surest path to sales in the academic market, so publishers are eager to propose textbooks to authors, and to accept textbook proposals from authors, and to reframe proposals for other kinds of books from authors as—surprise!—textbooks. This means I have read many more overviews of, say, Plato’s philosophy than I have read his dialogues, and more surveys of Karl Barth’s theology than Barth himself. I have labored for hundreds of hours over abstruse and stultifying “introductions” to what are by comparison short and straightforward classic texts. Most of these books have been too long. Not one of them has been too short.

Our experiences were, of course, not the same; he seems to have spent all his time on books, many of them trash, whereas I spent the first couple of decades on business journalism and pharmaceutical material, only turning to books around 2005 — primarily Oxford UP, but also the occasional one-off. There wasn’t much in the way of great writing, but there also wasn’t any trash (well, maybe one book written by a banker with self-help/philosophical pretensions could be so labeled). And I, with my linguistics background as well as exposure to a number of different style guides, did not internalize the diktats of the Chicago Manual to the extent he seems to have done (though of course I did learn them in considerable detail); to me, it was just one more arbitrary set of rules, not stone tablets to judge all writing by. But never mind all that: Jeff is a fellow laborer in the vineyard, and I’m happy to pass on his lively account of his experiences.


  1. By the way, I’ll be away from home and my computer for a few hours, so comments that get eaten by Akismet won’t be dealt with until I get back. Don’t spill drinks and smash up the furniture!

  2. When the Hat is not at home, the commenters dance on the table 😉

  3. Incredible Hulk says


  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Baas kae ka nwaamis di’e pɔɔg!

  5. I got my start proofreading after my grad assistantships ran out before I had finished my dissertation. A lady who organized a loose group of freelancers gave me a proofreading test, which I aced. (The State went after her as an employer, so our informal freelancer group had to disband.)

    Apparently my daughter inherited my proofreading eye. I remember her reading voraciously books in the Babysitter’s Club and then Sweet Valley High series (of ghostwritten, formulaic, mass-market stuff) and calling out typos. One book she read had somehow deleted the space after every period, probably by attempting to globally replace two spaces with one space, but mistakenly replacing two with nothing. She wrote to the publisher, who never replied with thanks or a repaired copy of the book. She’s still a voracious reader, as am I.

    After finally finishing my dissertation on weekends while working full-time doing tech support for accountants and bankers, I gave up on a linguistics career. Openings in my narrow field were saturated by the 1980s, and I had no interest in teaching theoretical syntax or phonology, so I migrated into academic publishing. Serving as managing editor or review editor is a step or two in the direction of line-editing and developmental editing, especially as I dealt with many authors whose English was a second or third language. Serving as copyeditor and later review editor for a journal in my narrow specialty helped me get up to speed enough to publish more of my own research in that field. My publication record in retirement has exceeded my record while I was working full-time. In retirement, I’m an unpaid adjunct, the best kind for university admins.

    Publications in narrow historical specialties have even fewer readers, but often have longer lifespans.

  6. mod’s away, post generative grammar!

  7. I’m back, and you’re all banned! Except for Joel, another laborer in the vineyard.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Copyediting is supposed to improve the writing? Let me confidently declare, then, that it has never existed in science publishing. Any contrary implications I may have made are wrong, any lamentations about its disappearance apply to proofreading.

  9. Well! I was, in years gone by, an editor at both Nature and Science, and I can tell you that both publications employed copyeditors. I myself did line-editing on occasion, and tried to make papers at least somewhat more coherent and clear. Whether we succeeded was in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but we tried.

    Tangentially, somewhere in Abraham Pais’s Niels Bohr’s Times he recounts how Bohr’s first visit to the US was reported by the NYT and comments that the paper’s science writers were far better back then than in later times. What he meant, I inferred, was the that reporter wrote down verbatim what Bohr said and made no attempt to paraphrase or explain it, regardless of whether the average Times reader was capable of making any sense of it.

  10. David Marjanović says

    OK, but I’m pretty sure Nature hasn’t even employed proofreaders in this millennium.

  11. @David Marjanović: I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that Nature has proofreaders. The question is whether they are useful. For dealing with rather poorly written (often by non-natives) prose text, I can imagine that they serve a purpose.* However, they are no use when dealing with material that is already generally well written. In particular, since the copyeditors do not really know a meaningful amount of math, they are wont to make changes in carefully laid out equations without respect for their meaning.

    * Like The Elements of Style was probably a useful manual for college students who were, to start out, pretty bad writers.

  12. It’s over 25 years since I worked at either publication, and of course it’s all been downhill since I left. My recollection is that the proofreaders would ask knowledgeable editors for help if they were faced with some awkward stylistic/compositional issue. And of course authors would get to check the proofs before publication.

    I don’t know how the staffing at Nature is these days. With all the spin-off journals they’ve created since I was there, perhaps proofreading and copyediting resources have been stretched thin.

  13. I worked in academic publishing for nine years, but as a software developer, not an editor. I remember speaking to editors, and got the impression that most academic papers arrived in a shocking state: amateurish, ungrammatical, and illogical, and that the editors had to rewrite them completely to render them publishable. One of their easier jobs was to remove pathetic attempts at humour.

  14. cuchuflete says

    The scene of the crimes: Baltimore, MD., USA, Johns Hopkins University.
    Late 1960s. Publication: Modern Language Notes, Spanish issue.
    The criminals: Graduate students, professors, leading and rising academics from around the world.

    The criminal task, as offered to me and my brethren and sistern: “Mr. Fxxxxxxx, Ms. Gxxxxxxx,
    if your schedule permits (and Gawd help you if it don’t!), please edit and proof these articles for the coming Hispanic Issue of MLN.”.

    “Oh, and touch up the Spanish as needed, bearing in mind the authors’ positions of hiring authority once your work here is completed…”


  15. most academic papers arrived in a shocking state

    I used to tell people that the best examples of well-written papers in clear English came from Scandinavian authors.

  16. David Marjanović says

    most academic papers arrived in a shocking state: amateurish, ungrammatical, and illogical, and that the editors had to rewrite them completely to render them publishable. One of their easier jobs was to remove pathetic attempts at humour.

    Rather than the editors doing this, the reviewers tell the authors to do it; editors usually just imply “do whatever the reviewers say”. In the next round it may be about half done, the reviewers say “publish”, and the editor decides to publish.

    I have never heard of an editor editing, in the academic-publishing meaning of “editor” (…which is rendered as rédacteur elsewhere).

  17. The article has a nice summary of the four types, which I’ve never seen explained before, but I’m damned if I can remember them. So it’s:

    1. Developmental editing: the big picture, organizing concepts.

    2. Line editing: help a writer to say what they mean in a voice that best expresses the spirit of their ideas.

    3. Copyediting: Cleaving to a style guide; making adjustments to word choice, order, rhythm, etc.

    4. Proofreading: Looking for remaining typos and solecisms.

    And 2. and 3. are often confused. Right.

    At one stage I did clean up a few papers by non-native speakers (usually Japanese), unpaid work. That mostly involved 2 and 3, of course, because it required fixing the writers’ poor English on all levels. One fellow-student who went on to an academic career in linguistics still expresses his gratitude for the way I edited the English-language summaries of his papers.

    At any rate, it looks like I missed my calling. It certainly sounds better than English teaching. Now I’m reduced to editing Wikipedia articles on occasion.

  18. It’s a satisfying job if you’re the kind of person suited to it; I’m glad I discovered it.

  19. I didn’t know you could get paid for it!

  20. Stu Clayton says

    It’s a thankless task, as so many tasks are. Payment efficiently compensates for that. Hegel was a cheapskate with his Anerkennung als Lebensmotor spiel. You don’t need a Congressional medal when you’re rolling in dough.

    Hegel hat zum Kern seiner Philosophie der Anerkennung das Sich-spiegeln-im-Anderen gemacht, wörtlich, man „schaut sich in jedem als sich selbst an“. Der Andere als Spiegel. Hegel hat sich in dem Zusammenhang auch mit dem Begriff der Nächstenliebe beschäftigt. usw usf

  21. John Cowan says

    Like The Elements of Style was probably a useful manual for college students who were, to start out, pretty bad writers.

    From the Reviser’s Introduction to Strunk & Cowan:

    I have attempted to remain within the scope of the original. This book, therefore, is intended as a compendium of helpful advice to novice writers in freshman composition classes, not a code of general laws of writing for all works by all writers in all circumstances. Violations of the rules can be found within the book itself — this is neither inconsistent nor hypocritical, as The Elements of Style Revised is not a paper written for a composition class.

    most academic papers arrived in a shocking state: amateurish, ungrammatical, and illogical, and that the editors had to rewrite them completely to render them publishable

    That’s pretty much what Gerard Piel, the longtime editor of Scientific American, told my father about what eventually appeared in the magazine.

    the best examples of well-written papers in clear English came from Scandinavian authors.

    Computer science articles, especially those from Bell Labs, tend to have that property as well. Bjarne Stroustrup writes well, but does not IMO particularly stand out among the other Labsites.

  22. Michael Hendry says

    Lots of interesting things to compare and contrast between the four kinds of editors and the indexer. I index a few monographs on Greek and Latin literature every year to supplement my Social Security and buy more books. A few thoughts:

    1. Obvious similarity: neither needs to worry about the quality of the book. My motto (not usually shared with the customer) is “Even a very bad book deserves a good index.” The first half of indexing – the mark-up that is followed by the data-entry – is very much like the first half of reviewing a book. Indexing names and places is easy, but indexing the ideas in a book requires a very thoughtful read-through to understand them. The big difference from reviewing is that I don’t care about the quality of the book – unless it’s so good that I ask for a free copy as part of my pay.

    2. Indexing usually includes a bit of copy-editing and proofreading as a free bonus. I have a good eye for errors, ambiguities, and inconsistencies, and the act of indexing makes some problems appear that even I would not otherwise have noticed. Years ago I helped index a ten-volume technical handbook for landlords. When I noticed that the S section of the growing document contained volume-plus-page references for sulfur, sulfuric, sulfate, and sulfite, but also sulphur, sulphuric, sulphate, and sulphite, I realized (a) that I’d never noticed the alternative spellings (US and UK?), and (b) they looked terrible juxtaposed and the authors really needed to fix them one way or the other. On my latest job, the same ancient work was called ‘Apollodorus, Library’ in one of the two references to it, ‘[Apollodorus], Bibliotheca’ in the other. I didn’t care one way or the other, but asked the author to decide on one, let me know which one so I could put in the index, and fix the other one in his text.

    3. Is Indexing a mere mechanical trade, like copy editing and proofreading? I don’t think so, at least if it’s done right, though I’m naturally prejudiced. The rules are rather vague: I have to decide what is important enough to index, what not, and where the likely reader will be most likely to look for information – more art than science. And I have to know the subject pretty well, too: know for instance that ‘Argentarius’ aka ‘Marcus Argentarius’ the Greek epigrammatist and A. = M.A. the Roman orator are probably, but not certainly the same person. That Lucillius and Loukillios are definitely the same person (another Greek epigrammatist) but Lucilius with a single L the Roman satirist is definitely not the same person as Lucilius the addressee of Seneca’s ‘Letters to Lucilius’, who lived ~160 years later, if he lived at all. Some scholars think he’s a fiction of Seneca, who quotes a few lines of Lucilius’ verses, telling L. how good they are. (They are in fact excellent verses. Does that make impersonation more or less likely?) These names and others are often screwed up in indices, especially where a book is a collection of chapters by different authors – conference proceedings or a Festschrift – where different contributors naturally prefer different spelling conventions.

  23. I have tremendous respect for indexers, and deeply appreciate a well-done index. Alas, they’re thin on the ground these days (like well-edited scholarly books).

Speak Your Mind