On being copyedited

A bunch of my academically employed Facebook/Twitter/social media du jour friends posted a link to an interesting article over at the Chronicle: Shame in Academic Writing. It’s all about how academics secretly think that their writing is terrible, and it makes them sad. This quote from a poor advisee sums it up:

“Is it normal,” he asked in a small voice, “to feel stupid after getting an edited manuscript back?”

Answer: Yes. Why, yes.

The problem is when these feelings manifest as temper tantrums, often directed at me, the lowly copyeditor. As someone employed in publishing, my take on this whole writing thing is, just write, and let a professional worry about making it awesome for print. If an author feels stupid (and who wouldn’t, after they see a redline where literally every line has a change?), they tend to get testy, and I have seen my share of really nasty notes. Usually it’s a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of “OMG you changed my WORDS.” What escapes these testy authors is (and this point is made in the article) someone very carefully read their entire text and analyzed it. That is time-consuming, requires real expertise, and is done out of respect for the author and the text.

This is why I hate being reviled. It’s not just OMG you changed my WORDS. It’s OMG you missed my POINT, or OMG you changed my words for NO REASON, or OMG you are so RANDOM, or OMG why is this EVEN IMPORTANT. It’s rarely OMG you saved my ASS, or OMG thank you for CATCHING THAT, or OMG you FACT-CHECKED. I still remember one author who wrote notes so nasty that I actually cried, and he reverted every single one of my edits back to the original. Every single one. So I was paid to edit, then unedit, an entire book. I had been impressed by the sheer number of prestigious presses he’d published with, but after this experience, I could see why. Nobody would work with him twice.

The difference between copyediting and, say, grading papers, or giving feedback to an advisee, is that it’s not really supposed to be a learning opportunity for the author, and authors reviewing their first copyedit don’t seem to get this, because I am not going to have an intellectual conversation with them about their article or book. I rarely write explanatory notes as I edit, unless it’s something the press specifically requested and I won’t/can’t honor a request to revert. I’m not there to teach authors how to use “due to,” or to explain why I edited every single instance of “using” that began a sentence. I’m not there to argue the merits of the serial comma that I imposed throughout; the press wants it, the press gets it, let’s move on. I’ve seen copyedited manuscripts where the copyeditor writes explanatory notes to the author, but they always come across as condescending—and see above re. making the author feel stupid.

This is all to say that when I see irate notes, sure, I get a pang of self-righteous anger: doesn’t the author see that I am trying to save her from herself? But ultimately, the author’s text is the author’s text, and she can change back whatever she wants. I don’t know how to say this nicely, so here it is: I really don’t care. Authors need not explain or justify. It’s their field, it’s their book, it’s their ideas. While I’m reading, I’m learning, and I’m vaguely engaged, but mostly I’m styling and reconciling references, and fact-checking online because it’s easier than writing a query, and wondering whether the spelling Stephen or Steven is correct. I hand it back to the author or I deliver it to the press, and I promptly forget all about it. So these dramatic OMG feelings and notes…honey, I just don’t have time for that.

Let me look at my statistics for a sec. Let’s say May 2011, chosen randomly. For my biggest client, I edited 855 pages of copy. I also edited one book (318 pages) and several manuscripts each for three other journals; I’m not going to count those pages up, but I would estimate it to be maybe 200 pages. So let’s call it…a whole ton of copy. Dudes, I am a frackin’ machine.

So to the poor trembling authors who feel inadequate, I have this to say. Yes. I changed your WORDS. If I edited a sentence and changed its meaning to something you didn’t intend, there need be no drama. Don’t even bother feeling hurt or writing a dramatic note, because for me, it’s all in a day’s work. Just change it—but keep in mind that I am no fool, and although it’s perfectly possible that I made a mistake, perhaps you ought to consider that your writing was unclear. If I made a change and you don’t understand why, but it makes sense, then just leave it, because I had a reason, even if you don’t know what it was.

I’m sure every author has a story about the stupid copyeditor who altered things willy-nilly and it took just forever to correct. I have stories too. But it boils down to this. It’s the copyeditor’s job to edit. It’s the author’s job to check over and approve it. If authors find something wrong and change it, well, um, that’s how it works. That’s supposed to happen.

Although I can advise authors that there’s no point in feeling stupid, that still doesn’t make them feel any less stupid when they get a marked-up edited manuscript. So my advice is, let the process do its work: write, revise, submit, revise, copyedit, review copyedit, review galleys, proofread. See how many steps there are? There’s a reason for that. There’s no need for drama, unprofessional notes, anger, or angst. Maybe this book is your life’s work, but it’s just a job for me. I see a lot of copy, I edit a lot of books, and I don’t think you’re stupid. But then again, why would you care what I think?

Just write and don’t worry about it too much, because there’s a whole process to make that writing awesome. That’s all any of us want.

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8 thoughts on “On being copyedited

  1. A thousand times yes!

    I’d bet every editor has a story of the author who made them cry. I can think of two off the top of my head who sent notes so hurtful that I still tear up a bit thinking about them.

    I always tell people to remember that the editor’s goal is to make the writer look good. We don’t do it to make ourselves look good and our name isn’t going to appear. Our sole aim is to make it look like the author writes flawlessly.

  2. Having been on both sides of this situation, I remain so so so grateful for my years working at a daily newspaper. You learn to set aside all the drama and focus on getting the work done according to the style sheet. Everyone expects to be edited in that environment. It’s a great way to “get over yourself.”

    Thanks for the post!

  3. As a grad student, I wonder how much of this stems from the fact that we are never “taught” what is normal, what can be expected, what we don’t need to be ashamed about. Obviously, as a grad student, my material comes back heavily copy-edited from my supervisors and advisors. I do wonder if the mindset becomes that when I have graduated, I shouldn’t need this. I can only hope that I have the right frame of mind when receiving those notes, and give them the good grace they deserve.

    • Mostly my post was a call for everyone to, like, be professional about it, suck it up, and get it done, without angsting because nobody has time for it (like really, NO TIME). But in grad school, I think “normal” means people read your work and comment on it; and when we teach our students, we often have them do group work. So… why would any of this change in the “real” world? I mean, you are in the “real” world the whole time, and presumably you are being taught that writing is a process that involves revision, and that what thoughtful people have to say can be valuable. Once you have a PhD, you still give your work to colleagues to read; you still are part of a larger community.

      Thus I argue that you are being taught what is normal all the way through grad school; the shock is when it’s codified, and being professionally edited (versus a supervisor/advisor or peer reader) is a much different experience. Their expertise does not lie in the subject matter; it lies in an entirely different realm, just as valuable, but it will be perceived by others only if it’s missing.

      My big mantra about anything that is published is, it’s not all you. It’s a consensus document between you, everyone who commented on it, the editor (who thinks about the larger field and how your work fits into it, so listen to the editor!), and the production team members. This is why acknowledgments sections for books are always so freakin’ long. But as the author, you have the final say, and nobody disputes that.

  4. Pingback: Too Good To Be True? | The Write Stuff

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