More editing (part 3)

Rereading the previous two posts it appears I’m disparaging copy editors and a host of other editors. I’m not.

I get a bit irked when copy editors call themselves editors, but that’s separate. Actually, it isn’t. It is very tangled, so much so that unless you’re in a business with several different types of ‘editor’ they can indeed be the same thing. I thought today I’d look at this other stuff. Along the way I’ll take a couple of (inevitable) digressions.

The most disparaged editor is the simple proofreader. All they are supposedly doing is looking for spelling errors. And bad punctuation. And maybe transposed words, and misused homonyms, and double words (the the). Oh, and maybe a bit of grammar.

Screech, full stop. The instant we step to grammar we’re headed up the chain a bit. Because grammar can be voice, and voice is the domain of the author with assistance from the editor. So let’s jump to another area.

The other disparaged editor is the copy editor. I need to point out right this second that there are really three flavors of ‘copy editor’ in existence and it is extremely easy to conflate and confuse them.

First, there’s the copy editor of the fiction publication world. This is the person who makes the notebook of every character and every place and ensures you always call Bahb Bahb and not Bohb. Or Bob. Or Andy. That last is almost a joke, but if you’ve got a cast of several dozen and Bohb is the green alien and Andy is the red one… yeah, now you’re getting it. Keeper of the Facts, that’s our copy editor.

Then there’s the copy editor who is almost of the typography world. This one shows up in the newspaper world. Here they’re spotting underlines (or not) and extra or missing spaces, text that should be centered (but isn’t) and that which is but shouldn’t be. They’re also checking to ensure the typeface was correct throughout.

There’s the copy editor, the cousin of the Keeper of the Facts, who ensures that you stay consistent with your options. Call this one the Keeper of consistency. If you spell it labor here and labour there, it gets noted so you can fix it (or explain that you’re doing it because Andy American spoke the first time and Betty British did it the second time. Hopefully Ed the senior Editor tells you you’re being an idiot but that’s beside the point.) If you hyphenate a pair of words here does the hyphenation stick? Eh, you get the idea.

There’s the copy editor who is almost a ‘full’ editor (incorrect but working label), the one who shows up in newspapers who cuts out excess adjectives and adverbs, who pares it down from gushing prose to ‘just the facts’. To be more truthful, in some organizations he changes the ‘just the facts’ adjectives and adverbs to those that reflect the style of the periodical: polysyllabic and erudite, or bluff and simple, the which depending on the ‘expected tone’ of the masthead.

Just for giggles, realize that every one of those ‘copy editor’ focuses plus the proofreader are all part and parcel of the job; that every copy editor does all those to some extent at some time.

And of course there isn’t a bright line between what they do (especially the ‘almost a full’) and the editor I discussed in previous posts. In fact the so-called full editor who helps the author choose phrasing and reorder text and remove (or sometimes add) large chunks has to know – and often has to do – all the “lower” tasks. Or at least they are supposed to. There are legends of editors who are genius at helping the author produce a great work who cannot spell to save their lives. But for the most part they’re of another age, and there’s decent reason to think most of the legends apocryphal at that.

Instead of a digression, I’m going to make an abrupt and ugly segue.

There is software out that is taking over more and more of the proof- and copy-editor tasks.

I have loitered on writer support sites where member xyz will sniff in virtual disdain at anyone suggesting such a thing: manual, your self, is /always/ the best. If you cannot detect the sarcasm and disgust in that sentence let me make it plainer. It is clinging romantically to a waste of time. I find myself wondering if the writer uses a quill pen, and how have they convinced their publisher to accept a scroll.

The software, some of the software, is quite sophisticated. At the bottom level are spell checkers. As you go up you get grammar checkers (to include “did you mean this word”), and further up you get… remember the Keepers of the Facts and Consistency? Yep, turns out that’s very doable though you have to add a little money. Usually these programs will throw in some of the things I mentioned in earlier posts, things like looking for over long sentences and paragraphs.

The forum folk sniff because the programs make mistakes. I laugh because I’ve got books on my shelf from “real” publishers with “real” copy editors and editors that have mistakes. The simple reality is that if you can afford one of these it can be worth your time to get them — ESPECIALLY if you’ve decided to be an editor instead of (or in addition to) being a writer. They do the grunt work, essentially saying:

“Boss, these might be problems. You wanna check them all or you just want me to take my best guess?”

If you’re wise, you say “I will check them all, Igor. Thank you, and please display them one at a time.”

You may still make a mistake or two but at least you won’t miss some — and you’ll get through the manuscript a lot faster as well.

Eventually, and I think that time is approaching but is not yet here, copy editing by hand will be extremely uncommon and only necessary in particular arenas. As with other jobs facing heavy automation it’ll have interesting impacts on the whole world of writing and publication.

But not yet. Right now you need your copy editors and you need your full editor, and you need to ensure you’ve not hired one when you needed (or wanted) the other.

If, of course, you have a choice. If your choice is whatever the Publisher chooses to let you have, well, they’re paying the bill so it’s their option. You’re forwarned, though, and can at least keep an eye on what’s happening.

Have fun.


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