Copyediting Is about Three People

Copyediting is about much more than fixing dangling modifiers and knowing Chicago style by heart (although both of those are good too). It’s fundamentally about meeting the needs of three very different people: the publisher, the author, and the reader. They each want something specific, and the copyeditor connects the dots between them.

The Publisher

The publisher relies on his copyeditor to protect and advance his reputation for clean and accurate copy that fits the publisher’s tone.

Every time the copyeditor catches a misquote or a slip of logic, she is defending the publisher from a little embarrassment. Every article (or book, or report) needs somebody to double-check the facts and make sure the argument has no holes.

For think tanks and advocacy groups, the publisher also wants every piece of writing to be consistent with the organization’s overall message. In the libertarian world, where strict constitutionalists rub shoulders with anarchocapitalists and mutualists, this can be a tricky business. In my experience, though, adding or subtracting a couple of words can often smooth over the gaps.

Minarchist: Down with the welfare-warfare state!
Anarchist: Down with the welfare-warfare state!

The copyeditor also carries out her publisher’s decisions as to whether the tone will be elegant and refined or rough-and-tumble. If the author’s article mentions the use of human excrement in the abuse of detainees, the copyeditor has to ensure that the diction is right for the publication: should the choice of words shock the reader into outrage or create a dispassionate account for him to think on?

The Author

The author does appreciate the protection against error that a copyeditor provides. But every little piece of writing is an author’s beloved baby, and what most authors really care about is that the editing process doesn’t break their emotional attachment, their sense of ownership over their own writing.

The copyeditor can make the author happy in three important ways.

First, do no harm: Make as few changes as you can and make them as subtly as you can. If you can fix a paragraph by reorganizing it instead of rewriting it, that’s good. And if you can fix it by changing punctuation instead of words, that’s even better (most authors love their similes, not their semicolons).

Second, communicate: It’s better for you to send an email to an author explaining what you did than to make him send an email asking why you did it. My ideal is to tell the author the two or three most significant changes I made in a short piece. If I had to alter a great deal of the piece, keeping my list of “significant” changes down to three avoids overwhelming or accidentally insulting him. If I had to change very little, then mentioning some small items — even just a couple of typos — keeps the author informed about what I’m doing with his baby.

Third, collaborate: Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know better than the author what he meant to say. To him, you’re just the babysitter. So if time permits, check in with the author to ask his advice on how to fix any ambiguous passages. It’s especially wise to check in about any changes to introductions, conclusions, jokes, and anecdotes.

If the copyeditor carefully protects the author’s emotional attachment to his piece, he will feel safe sending his next labor of love to the publisher. The trick, of course, is protecting this sense of ownership while still making the changes that the publisher and the reader need.

The Reader

Unlike the author and the publisher, the reader does not already know what the words on the page are supposed to say. That’s why the copyeditor needs to cultivate the reader’s understanding of the piece — to help him get the author’s jokes and follow his argument.

Above all, this means creating clarity without contradicting the author’s style. A passage from Strunk & White comes to mind:

Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style.… But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.

One common conflict occurs when the author uses a difficult or technical concept without explaining it. Adding a complete definition can interfere with the flow of the author’s narrative. But leaving it undefined can turn new readers off. (In an era when libertarianism is suddenly attracting more interest than ever before, there are a lot of new readers.) The middle path, at least for web publications, is to provide a new-window link to a good explanation. Some publishers may be wary of directing readers away from the page, but the reader will Google it on his own (or decide to surf elsewhere) if no link is provided.


The copyeditor’s job is to connect the dots between the needs of these three people. She can safeguard the publisher’s reputation, nurture the author’s attachment to the work, and cultivate the reader’s understanding of it; and she can usually do it all at once. The publisher, of course, reigns supreme. But the publisher’s goal is generally to keep the reader engaged. And the reader won’t engage unless his favorite author’s writing comes through the way it was intended — and without any dangling modifiers.

1 Comment

Filed under Tips and Tricks

One response to “Copyediting Is about Three People

  1. Very informative. Thanks a lot for sharing !!!

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