Tag Archives: copyediting

Mind the Gap

Looking at the spaces between vertical railings on my friend’s just-built deck, I could only say, “This can’t adhere to any code.” The spaces were a good two feet apart, so any child under the age of six could easily walk right off the deck.

Needless to say, my friend had words with her contractor.

The existing railing might even have been worse than no railing at all, because the illusion of safety might have given a false sense of security, whereas if there were no railing whatsoever, people (presumably even children) would be afraid to go near the edge.

Editing can be like that.

I’ve noticed that the more professional the design, whether that means typesetting of the text or pictorial or illustrative elements surrounding the text, the more likely the editor is to have a false sense that everything is okay.

It rarely is.

I’ve seen good editors miss what should be obvious mistakes on book covers in part, I have to think, because the design looks so nice that it’s hard to believe there could be an error.

A corollary is that editors can easily fail to fact-check something because of the thought that the writer intended a piece of information to be there and must know what he or she is talking about.

Trust in editing is a dangerous thing, while skepticism more often than not saves the day.

But editors should be skeptical of their own impulses as well. Before making any change, editors have to counter the little thrill of making a correction by asking themselves whether there’s any way that the original instance could in fact be correct. Young editors especially can be so fired up with confidence in their abilities that they introduce errors by misreading a usage and making a bad edit.

So we have to always be skeptical of the text, of our writers, and, perhaps most particularly, of ourselves. As always, do no harm!

And don’t go stepping off any decks, metaphorical ones or otherwise.  


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I’ve never applied eye black before tackling a manuscript. My reading glasses, I’ll readily admit, don’t even come close to saying badass the way that eye black does. Still, with the kickoff of the NFL season scant hours away, it occurs to me that there’s a position on the gridiron not all too dissimilar to that of copy editor: the cornerback.

Strange, you might think (or passing strange), to compare a position held by one of the world’s finest athletes to the role of copy editor, but there’s one obvious link: a copy editor, like a cornerback, can only screw up. We can only get burned.

If a copy editor does his or her job correctly, no one notices. By the same token, if a cornerback shuts down a receiver, the ball doesn’t get thrown to that side of the field, and the corner and receiver might as well be invisible. It’s only when the receiver slips behind the defense and hauls in a big gain that the now-hapless-looking corner gets his name called. Any editor who’s missed something (and all editors miss from time to time) knows that feeling of getting schooled. (Thankfully, our moments of shame aren’t broadcast on national television.)

Like a corner who’s just bitten on a really good fake, all we can do is shake it off, try to learn something from the experience, and remind ourselves that we’re damned good at what we do. What just happened won’t happen again. Not on my watch.

I don’t want to completely discount our moments of glory, either. Snagging an interception and taking it to the house is a surefire way to bring a crowd (happily spilling beer and overpriced concessions) to its feet. Copy editors enjoy their own time in the limelight, even if pointing out a dangling participle isn’t likely to make any sports channel’s top-ten plays of the day.

These moments, however, are few and far between. Our lot is to toil in obscurity, the garbage men of publishing, cleaning up unsightly errors while the rest of the world sleeps.

I enjoy my work. I think it a noble profession. I like leaving a manuscript in better shape than I found it.

I’m happy to play my position.

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