The Five Rules for Copy Editors

Posted: July 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

I’ll let you in on a secret: Copy editing is an exercise in deliberate misreading. I know. This makes copy editors sound like villains, but it’s actually really necessary. Believe me. You want us deliberately misreading your work because I can guarantee you that someone in your audience will eventually read it that way too, and not on purpose. As a result, copy editors have gotten a bad rep as arrogant pricks. Of course, in all fairness, this reputation is not always entirely undeserved. So, here are a few rules that will help any of you aspiring editors to be successful in your job requirements while also getting on with your colleagues.

1. Don’t be an asshole.

For values of “an asshole” read “judgmental, rude, condescending, inappropriate,” etc. Believe it or not, the writer you’re assisting doesn’t appreciate having their work called “inane” or “nonsensical”—and yeah, I’ve personally read copy-editor notes that have used these words. You’re colleagues, not friends. Amazingly, they’ll likely interpret your deadpan humor—if that’s genuinely what it is—as hostility. Thoughts like, “Dangling modifiers are LOLZ!” should stay in your head and should not make it into your notes.

2. Don’t be a doormat.

This rule is not mutually exclusive of the first. Standing by your copy recommendations, especially in the face of someone who is being contrary to protect a delicate ego, is necessary for gaining respect as someone who is knowledgeable of and talented in your field. Of course, these ego-protecting people can sometimes be intimidating, and even abusive, so it’s an attractive option simply to appease them. Eventually, though, your boss or your boss’s boss will come knocking on your door wondering why you didn’t fix such a blatant error. “Because Sally wasn’t going to like me if I did,” is not an acceptable excuse. You have a job to do. Do it if you want to keep it.

So, how do you achieve both of these first two rules at the same time?

3. Support EVERY change with a source.

Seriously. Even putting in or taking out a comma. So many rules in grammar are thoroughly esoteric—which may be one reason so many people are so eager to demonstrate that they know them—but it’s never safe to assume that even lay-grammarians don’t know them. They’ll try to trip you up based on their cursory knowledge of the subject. But here’s the rub—they can often be right! Supporting your changes with a source will help you avoid looking lazy or inept and will help you to build an image of professionalism and thoroughness.

Of course, when you are right and your colleague is wrong, refer to the first rule: Don’t be an asshole.

4. Allow the rules to be broken when it’s appropriate.

I once worked with a copy editor who insisted on having perfect grammar and spelling in every situation, including texting. To him, it was morally compromising to relax the rules, even for informal texts that would never be published. Rules, after all, are there for a reason and should be followed.


Grammar is a tool for communicating clearly and, more importantly, appropriately. Sometimes, absolutely proper grammar can obfuscate what it is you’re trying to communicate. Avoiding every instance of a sentence-ending preposition is a perfect example of this kind of situation: sometimes it’s just clearer to end the sentence with the damn preposition. (Of course, the rule about never ending a sentence in a preposition is itself bunk, but it’s commonly believed to be a rule, which is why I’ve included it as an example here.)

Think about it like this: How much would you enjoy reading a novel in which every single person spoke with absolutely perfect grammar all the time, regardless of the character’s background? Exactly. It’d be weird, unbelievable, and boring.

5. Don’t correct people’s spoken grammar.

This rule is related to “Don’t be an asshole,” but it really deserves its own place as a rule.

Recognize that your colleagues are smart people who are made uneasy, intimidated, or even infuriated by the thought that you’re paid to correct them in writing. It’s not personal—communication is hard, and everyone makes mistakes—but plenty of people take it that way. Will correcting their words while they’re speaking help them to change their minds about you? Probably not. Turn off the copy-editor mode when you’re listening to other people; instead, actually listen to them.

So, those are the rules. Notice that I mentioned nothing about grammar rules, education, style guides, etc. If you’re considering being an editor (and being a copy editor is likely where you’ll start), you’re probably already well on your way to checking off that list, so I don’t need to go on about it.

Copy editing is usually most attractive to a certain type of person—that is, one who is shy and smart. Having both these qualities often precipitates having other similar qualities: self-consciousness, nonsocial-ness, reliance on rules, etc. On its face, copy editing appears to be a perfect occupation for one who has these traits and a language/grammar nerd proclivity—it’s just you, a red pen and/or Track Changes, and words that just want for you to perfect them. The reality, however, is that being a good and successful copy editor requires a high degree of social acuity. It’s a people-centric position in disguise, so treat every writer like a person, deserving of dignity and respect.


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