What Is a Copy Editor?

Any book that is published goes through a series of production stages, and one is the copy edit. Often a writer is confused by the position of copy editor. After all, their editor has already had a crack, isn’t that enough already? I’m afraid not. The copy editor comes in after that stage, and their job is to correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Often they will suggest minor textual changes as well, such as advocating parallel sentence construction, clarifying word usage, etc. Their work is vital to the process, because no reader enjoys a book that is filled with errors.

Part of a copy editor’s job is making sure grammar rules are followed consistently. If you have a full sentence after a colon, for instance, is the first word capitalized or not? Does it matter if that sentence is a question? Copy editors apply the rules, usually according in the Chicago Manual of Style, and also following a style sheet provided to them by the publishing house. That’s because almost all copy editing these days is done by freelancers.

Having been both an in-house copy editor and a freelance copy editor, I know most of the nuances of the trade. Above all, I know that copy editors can be rigid. In the desire of make usage consistent, they can go to absurd lengths. For example, some copy editors think that hyphens should not be used with common prefixes such as pre- and post-. So they become part of a word that does not normally have them, such as prelaunch and postlaunch. When this rule is applied inflexibly, words can become unwieldy, such as preconstruction. The reader has to stop to read the word again, because the assemblage is so odd.

Luckily for authors, the Chicago Manual of Style says that many grammar questions fall in a gray area. There is no absolute rule for, for instance, spelling out numbers after 10. In fiction you are supposed to spell them out to 100, but in nonfiction you often don’t. Chicago gives a general piece of advice for these questions: whatever style the author uses, follow that. So if you write a nonfiction book and are consistent about using numbers after 10, you should be indignant if the copy editor spells them all out.

You have the right to request that copyediting changes be reversed to what you originally wrote. Yet you should be aware, if you don’t have a firm grasp on grammar rules, that in most instances a copy editor is following someone’s rules. If you don’t know enough to protect your own reputation from ill word usage, you can be assured that publishing houses will protect theirs.

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”
—T. S. Eliot

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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