When people learn that I work as an editor, they often ask me what books I have edited. And then I am compelled to bore those poor enquiring souls witless, with an answer that is much longer than they were hoping for.
There is a bit of confusion out there about what an editor does. Most people immediately think of book, newspaper, magazine, or even film editors. In other words, all the glamour editors. I'm not any of these (although I am terribly glamorous). I'm a copyeditor.
In light of this bewilderment, I thought it might be handy to put together a little pocket guide to copyediting, to help demystify this darkest of the dark arts.
Editors love words
One of the best descriptions of an editor that I've ever read, is someone who is 'a lover of words'. This may not be the most comprehensive description, but it's definitely a prerequisite for the job.
Editors meticulously inspect writing, and have a compulsion and a knack for putting words together in a way that perfects sentences, connects them, and binds them together to reveal the writer's intention in the most accurate, elegant and delicious way. Editors are detailed and critical readers, whose job it is to take writing in its draft form and polish it - smoothing out the rough edges, finding and correcting the mistakes, and enhancing the way all those words are put together so that the meaning of the work is expressed as fully as it can be.
When I edit something, my goal is to make the writing as seamless and accomplished as possible, so that the people reading it feel connected to the story that is being told – whether that's a story on a website about someone's business, the story of a project that needs funding or deserves an award, or an email that has to get its message across in just a few paragraphs.
A day in an editor's life
As a copyeditor, my area of editing expertise is business communications. In this job, I focus on a few different levels of editing.
Say, for example, that someone needs an annual report edited. The document is weighty, and a number of different people have contributed to it. All the information is in there, but there are different writing styles, different voices and tone, and none of it has been checked for typos or inconsistencies. What the client needs (by the deadline) is a report that is accurate, clear and consistent in its content and style, with no errors, and a tone that is easy and enjoyable to read and understand.
This kind of job requires several different editing approaches:
Substantive (or structural) editing
A structural edit takes a broad view of the work and is focused on the overall flow and arrangement of information within the document. The questions I ask myself at this stage are: Is the content in a logical order? Does the information flow smoothly from one section to another? Are the sections in the right place? Is there repeated content? Are there huge chunks of uninterrupted text? Do the headings make sense?
This is about making sure the document has good bones. The same process applies for website content, emails and letters. And, for an award or funding submission, I may also check that the each answer addresses the criteria or questions within the submission.
The structure is the framework that helps your reader move through your communication and keeps them with you until the end.
Once the structure is solid, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty.
Copyediting is a meticulous examination of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. This is where I check spelling, punctuation, grammar, document formatting, and the style and tone of the writing, to ensure accuracy and consistency of the text. For the web, this level of editing may also include checking or adding links and key words and checking or writing image captions.
This is the level of editing that I very fondly refer to as 'nitpicking'.
If you do nothing else with a piece of writing, you should always, always, have someone else proofread it before you release it into the wild. Proofreading is your safety net; the mesh in which all those tiny, superfluous commas, extra spaces, and repeated words are caught.
Proofreading happens at the final stage of production, before publication, when the document, submission, webpage or newsletter is ready to go to print or send out to your contact list.
At this stage, I check the entire document once again - giving it a very close read to check that there are no errors, that all text corrections have been incorporated by the graphic designer, that hyperlinks are correct and that headings and section breaks are all where they should be. In short, I check everything.
The devil is in the detail
Copyediting is all about attention to detail. Some stages require editing on screen, and at other times it needs a quiet corner with a printout and a red pen. Often, it needs both. It can be time consuming, and it requires focus and practice. And it really does demand a love of words.
My goal in all this, every time I edit, is to find the heart of the story that is to be told and make sure it is written in a way that will captivate the reader, stay with them, and have an impact.
The satisfaction of presenting someone with a piece of work that you know is as polished and perfect as it can be is pretty darn good. And that's why I love editing.