Handy characteristics for copyeditors

My experience with copyediting dates back to my days in high school, when I worked on the high school’s student-run literary magazine. I’m no longer sure what drew me to copyediting in particular—I could’ve worked on the design of the magazine or the fundraising, for example—but the attraction to copyediting hasn’t gone away.

I think this experience in high school helped me to develop some of the characteristics and skills that are useful in a copyediting career.

A copyeditor must be

  • detail-oriented,

  • analytical,

  • empathetic,

  • patient, and

  • curious.

Attention to detail is a boon for copyeditors, because they need to pay special attention to the things that most people won’t notice while they’re writing (or reading). An italicized punctuation mark might not seem like a significant issue, but if it’s going to make the reader take a second look, it needs to be corrected. Copyeditors have to train their eyes to look for minuscule errors such as these.

Copyeditors have to analyze the sentences in the author’s writing to read any other possible interpretations. Our brains have a habit of making sense out of nonsense, of seeing patterns where there are none. You’ll see what I mean if you’ve ever read a sentence like this one:

Oyu erallly acn raed htsi, cn’ta uoy?

However, this tendency for the brain to interpret without much forethought can cause problems if there are multiple possible interpretations. For example:

I bought watermelons only at the store.

This sentence could be interpreted in at least two ways: either you bought exclusively watermelons at the store (you bought nothing else), or you bought watermelons at the store only (you didn’t buy watermelons from anywhere else). If the sentence were left with this ambiguity in place (the ambiguous placement of “only” in this sentence is called a squinting modifier), different readers could interpret the sentence in different ways; the copyeditors’ job is to clarify the original meaning so that misinterpretations aren’t possible.

When copyeditors are reading through a text, they have to ask themselves: in what ways can this (clause, sentence, paragraph) be interpreted? What’s the best way to say this? How can I clear up any confusion?

Reading through different possible interpretations also requires a big dose of empathy. Copyeditors need to be empathetic both to the reader and to the author. They need to be able to put themselves in the readers’ shoes to discover how things could possibly be misread or misunderstood and in the author’s shoes to be able to find a way to communicate the intended message as eloquently, clearly, and faithfully as possible. It isn’t a copyeditor’s job to rewrite everything, but to fine-tune an author’s message through little language tweaks to allow for ease of reading.

Copyeditor at work, with cat in the background.
Curiosity may kill the cat, but it saves the copyeditor.

Patience is also necessary for these types of editing situations, because editors need to do some sentence gymnastics to find a clearer way to express the original idea, while also avoiding any unnecessary changes to the author’s writing. Sometimes editors may be confused by the author’s intended meaning and have to dig around in the surrounding text to surmise the author’s meaning from context; oftentimes, editors may have to query the author to clarify the original intent of the sentence and will also have to propose multiple possible solutions, meaning that editors will have to rewrite the sentence multiple times.

Recurring mistakes also require a lot of patience. There are two types of mistakes: one-offs, which often need case-by-case solutions, and recurring mistakes, which need to be fixed consistently throughout the text. The sentence about watermelons above is an example of a one-off mistake; it’s unlikely that the author has squinting modifiers in a majority of the sentences throughout their text. But a misspelled word or a bad comma habit can plague an author’s writing from beginning to end, so editors have to make sure to catch and kill every single instance of a recurring error.

Finally, copyeditors must be curious! To read a wide variety of topics, to understand the author’s intended meaning, and to capture the author’s voice in possible revisions and rewrites, editors must be willing to immerse themselves in the text and the subject at hand.

I want know what my clients are writing about and understand it; I’m curious and engaged with their writing, so I can ensure that their readers will be too.

Curious about copyediting? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post, subscribe to my newsletter.