If you can write, you can copyedit.

That title caught your attention! If you’re a copyeditor, you’re probably laughing hysterically. If you’re a writer, you were probably hoping it was right.

So no, writing and copyediting are two different animals. Of course, there are those who can do both well, but that doesn’t hold true for everyone.

I started writing at an early age, but I didn’t start really copyediting until middle school. I played Academic Games, and Linguistics was my favorite game. I became quite good at noticing subjects, objects, prepositional phrases, adverbial clauses, gerunds, etc. The rules of grammar were fun!

So, what exactly is copyediting?

First, let me point out some important characteristics that can make or break your copyediting venture.

If you don’t know the difference between an adverb and an adjective, or you don’t know how to identify the object of a preposition, you might not want to call yourself a copyeditor.

If you use commas arbitrarily (maybe you write a sentence, close your eyes, and randomly put in commas), you’re not a copyeditor.

If you don’t notice commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and periods when you’re reading things, you might not be ready for copyediting.

Okay. Here’s a definition. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, copyediting involves both mechanical editing and substantive editing.

Mechanical editing requires a “close reading of the manuscript with an eye to such matters as consistency of capitalization, spelling, and hyphenation; agreement of verbs and subjects; punctuation; beginning and ending quotation marks and parentheses; numbers given a numerals or spelled out; and many similar details of style.”

It’s a very time-consuming, detailed task. Not for the faint of heart, and not for those who are easily bored.

In college, I copyedited my university’s daily newspaper. After a while, I couldn’t even read for fun. I found myself checking every letter and punctuation mark. It became a tedious chore. I’ve recovered now, but I don’t copyedit all the time anymore.

Substantive copyediting is slightly different, but is still an essential part of the process. “It involves rewriting, reorganizing, or suggesting other ways to present material.” 

I think substantive copyediting is more of an art, whereas mechanical copyediting is an (almost) exact science (most rules of grammar are explicit).

If you’re up to the task of copyediting, you have to arm yourself with two essential tools: The Chicago Manual of Style, and the Harbrace College Handbook (I’ve added them to the side panel as well). If you’re copyediting for newspapers, use their style manuals…usually AP style.

Being a good copyeditor does not also mean that you’re a good writer. You may be good at fixing things for others, but writing from scratch may elude you. I’m lucky to be pretty good at both.

My preference? First, I like writing my own material. Second, I like mechanical copyediting. Substantive copyediting is only fun when I don’t have to deal with bad writing and arrogant authors.

What about you? I know a lot of my readers are writers (well, all of you, if you write a blog). And many of you write and edit for a living as well. What do you prefer? Writing for yourself, mechanical copyediting, or substantive copyediting?

12 Responses to “If you can write, you can copyedit.”

  1. I prefer substantive copyediting, and every book I edit is as much my baby as anything I write for myself. The last three books I’ve edited have won awards or finaled in contests, and I’m as thrilled as the authors. I have learned that I am a better nonfiction writer than fiction writer and a better editor than writer. But I love both writing and editing.

  2. Theda K. says:

    Hi Lillie, thanks for stopping by! Were your authors used to writing? I guess I mean, were they good writers? Lately I’ve been getting newbie authors.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Marie D says:

    I love love love grammar LOL. I do a lot of copyediting at work but it is not always easy to have an eye for all the very small things, like punctuation. It requires time and patience, and I do not always have that at work. But I like the exercise, as much as I like writing.

  4. Lisa says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I linked to this article. It’s a great overview of copyediting. Thanks!

  5. Theda,

    Usually I work with inexperienced writers who have great ideas/stories and less-than-great writing skills.

    The book I edited that won the EPPIE for general nonfiction this year began as two separate diaries written in Vietnamese by a husband and wife and translated into English by their daughter-in-law. She had come to the US from Vietnam only a few years earlier, so she wrote/translated as someone for whom English is a second language. Making the story easily readable and understandable in English while maintaining the Vietnamese voice was a challenge.

    Two writers I’m currently working with actually had very little education. One had seldom attended school at all, and the other one, who is blind, learned very little in his special education classes.

    I really like helping them turn a manuscript that in some cases is almost unreadable into a great story.

    Although I have some clients who are excellent writers, most need a lot of help.

  6. Adam says:

    Well it’s pretty clear I won’t be copy-editing anytime soon. I am a comma freak and I can never remember whether I am writing with american or uk spelling, which makes for some interesting manuscripts occasionally.

  7. Theda K. says:

    Marie, I love grammar too! Lisa, thanks for the link. I hope your readers enjoy it.

    Lillie, thanks for telling me your experiences. I’m going to try to adopt your attitude when I get difficult writing. I’ll try to start looking at these projects as ‘my babies.’ Much better than gnashing my teeth everytime I come across a misplaced comma!

    And Adam, thanks for the comment. If you’re interested, pick up one of the two books I mentioned and start learning the comma rules. They’re pretty definite rules, though some are up to the writer’s judgement.

    I’ll be posting a copyediting quiz in the weeks to come. Fun!

  8. Theda,
    This is such an interesting conversation that I’m continuing it on my blog.

  9. [...] Theda at Crayon Writer started an interesting conversation with If you can write, you can copyedit. [...]

  10. Hendrik says:

    I won’t be copy-editing anytime soon.thanks for telling me your experiences. I’m going to try to adopt your attitude when I get difficult writing.I have learned that I am a better nonfiction writer than fiction writer and a better editor than writer. ..ok

    Hendrik’s last blog post..Upcoming on CV

  11. Tracey says:

    I so wish I could say I love grammar and the rules are fun, but sadly not. Commas are my biggest problem. I enjoy writing, but really wish I was good at editing. You are lucky you are able to do both.
    .-= Tracey´s last blog ..Creative Writing Techniques =-.

  12. K.C. says:

    In general, I’d say that the better a writer becomes, the better their editing skills will be. However, I must say, even good writers become oblivious to their own errors – especially since they already know what they’re saying. One remedy for this, is to take long breaks before the major edits. At any rate, I find it much easier to edit other peoples’ work as opposed to my own. However, being your own editor is the most rewarding… Cheers!
    K.C.´s last blog post ..Does Telekinesis or Psychokinesis really exist?