If you had asked me five years ago what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer would have been immediate and unequivocal: “I want to be an editor.”
I’m not entirely sure that at that point I knew what I was getting into. My conception of what an editor did was confined to a vague notion of reading a lot of books before anyone else got a chance to see them. And maybe, you know, correcting spelling and such. Hey, I had an eye for grammar and a passion for correcting it—a chance to combine these two hobbies into a career was tempting.
I dabbled for a bit first—student publications, practical editing “courses” in which massive groups of ten students edited a book for publication by a small local press. I finished these with the foolish confidence that I was meant for the work.
But then I went to publishing school, promptly realized my interests were elsewhere, and never looked back.
Our Fearless Leader asked if I might like to try my hand at copy editing an upcoming book. He said that it would probably be good for me. My first reaction was “Are you nuts? You trust me to do what?” But I thought he was probably right, that it would be good for me, so I bravely (if a bit apprehensively) acquiesced.
Then the proofs came in the mail.
I had to idea there would be so much paper. I mean really. When you do as much work on the computer as I do, you forget what several hundred pages of paper looks like.
Undaunted (well, mostly), I tucked in, reading through once without marking it up, just to get a better feel for the book, which I hadn’t read in months.
The next read saw me pencilling in suggestions and furiously recording every non-standard word, every name, every title that cropped up in the manuscript. I flipped crazily through copies of a small library of reference books—The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Editing Canadian English, for the most part, though several others made appearances at one point or another. On the one hand, I was happy that I could use these expensive reference books, whose spines probably hadn’t been cracked since grad school, or maybe publishing school. On the other hand, this:
Yet another read saw me re-checking all of my comments, erasing and marking and erasing and marking until a small anthill of eraser dust collected on my desk. (When I stood up for a much-needed coffee break, minuscule eraser-worms tumbled off my clothes and onto the floor.)
At long last and with no little stress, the proofs were off in the mail to the unsuspecting author. It was one of those moments of elation, mental exhaustion and ridiculously proud triumph that I will remember for a long time.
From this, I learned that it takes a special sort of person be a copy editor.
I like to think of them as literary Batmans (Batmen? A true copyeditor would know….) who spend hours upon hours reading through manuscripts and fighting editorial crime–ferreting out typos, kicking style and formatting butt, ridding the world of pesky punctuation problems. They read the books cover to cover—several times—under deadline, researching, annotating, and generally shaping books into the polished, professional packages we so dearly love.
I read a Poynter article a few weeks back that called good copy editors ‘abnormal’ humans because of the way they are able to look at individual words and phrases while avoiding the brain’s pre-programmed urge to make meaning even out of mistakes. So copy editors have to have the mental fortitude to go against nature and ‘switch off’ this habit in order to effectively hunt for errors.
But there’s also a different type of mental fortitude at play. I consider professional copy editors to be among the bravest souls in the publishing profession. If a copy editor’s job is done right, you never think twice about his or her existence. But if, by some chance, there is an error—a misspelled name, a missing word, or any of a number of editorial catastrophes—the error is tsked upon by all and sundry. (Remember the brouhaha over the mistakes found in the Harry Potter books? Now there’s an entire wiki page dedicated to them.)
This is all to say that my recent adventures in copy editing have been … nerve-wracking, to say the least. But I’ve learned more about hard work, mental fortitude—and the hyphenation of compound adjectives—than I ever thought possible.
Fantastic article! Glad to see you’re getting your hands, erm, papery over there.
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