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the art of copy editing.

April 8, 2014

whenever i explain my job to someone, they sort of get a blank look in their eyes. don’t blame them. i work for a newspaper, but not directly for it – newspapers outsource a good chunk of their editing nowadays, and so copy editors like us don’t work in the newspapers’ newsrooms anymore (though i do say i work in a ‘newsroom’ to people, just to be expeditious when giving them my job-blurb) – we work offsite, for a different company. i still correspond with all of the people at the newspaper, i just do it through email/over the phone. it’s an interesting set-up, and i understand why people don’t always understand it. but what does boggle me is when people say “what’s a copy editor?” because i’m a word nerd, i assume that everyone else has the same mindset as me. which is stupid of me. so now i’m going to talk about copy editing.

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spot the error.

spot the error.

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granted, i do journalistic copy editing. so that means that the writing is different – kind of back-loaded, so that sentences can start from one thought and lead into another without having to split the sentence into two. and we have a strict in-house style guide, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what to capitalize or what not to capitalize, what to put round brackets around and what to put square brackets around, or even what to hyphenate. (this is a particular weakness of mine). i’ve even found that my personal writing is changing because of how much news copy i read every day. (i still use adverbs like a maniac, but i tend to cut my sentences shorter, yo.)

to be honest, copy editors are the unsung heroes of any publication, and i’m certainly not just saying that because i work as one. in fact, i’m still low on the grammatical totem pole – i’m constantly being surprised by things that i thought i knew. (don’t use impact as a verb – “it impacts us”; don’t use aggravation as a noun – “it’ll save you aggravation”; things can centre around but not centre on; none can be SINGULAR – “none of the crowd has spilled out into the square” and plural – “none of the crowd have left their places”; it’s considered bad writing to say “over” and “under” – not “just over two years of practice” but instead “just more than two years of practice.” D’OH! every day i’m constantly missing these things and trying to remember them, but when you read and reread things you start to go a little loopy.

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spot the error, yo.

spot the error, yo.

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nay, copy editors are the unsung heroes of the papers because we get no recognition when we do our job properly, and tons of vitriol (see any letters to the public editor/editorial/complaints sections to understand this) from people – who read the paper sometimes just to error-hunt – when we don’t. and we catch a lot of stuff. not only that, we also fact-check when we have the time. we check the years that specific laws were enacted, acreages of rainforests, the spellings of last names, the official titles of ambassadors and ministers and chairs. every day, our team is changing dozens of errors that slip through the different human safety nets (and occasionally slip through ours, too) – because that is the nature of human error: sometimes, the eye skips through a sentence and doesn’t catch that an article is missing from a quote. sometimes, we mix up millions and billions. sometimes, we just screw up in efforts to get an important story out to the public!

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spot the error, yo.

spot the error, yo.

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but mostly, we don’t. mostly, copy editors manage to catch many errors, and make that newspaper that you’re holding in your hands the quality it is. we don’t have our names written anywhere on the masthead. we often aren’t thanked by the journalists or the readers. in fact, we’re only really addressed when someone thinks something is wrong.

despite that, i love what i do. i like staying in touch with what’s happening around the world and learning about politics, business, hard news and sports all in one night. i like being a jack of all trades and i like that i work with a team who doesn’t get bothered if i stop the office chatter to ask a grammar question. i have researched one city in china just to make sure that a university name was spelled correctly in an obit. it’s important. it makes the reading better. it gives gravity and power to a person’s story. it helps the writers. it keeps my skills strong. it forces me to learn more and more about grammar in a day and age where the written word is a dying art. so to sum it up: i am a word nerd and i am proud. remember us. we work hard.

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