Copyediting for Fun and (Maybe) Profit

The lack of posts this week isn’t because of depression or laziness. (I am lazy, of course, but that doesn’t happen to be the reason.) Rather, I’m studying to be a copyeditor.

What the hell is a copyeditor (and why does Chrome insist, with enormous irony, that it’s not a word)?

A copyeditor reads a manuscript carefully, checking for the “little” things: grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, word usage, biased language, consistency, clarity, tightness of expression, etc. Sometimes fact-checking is included too. This is in contrast to a substantive editor (or just “editor”), who is more concerned with the big picture: large-scale structure, pacing, which sections are interesting and which aren’t, etc.

A copyeditor can work on almost any kind of text where details matter, including novels, non-fiction books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly papers, and all sorts of websites.

I used to be a computer programmer. It’s what I went to school for. So why in the world would I want to be a grammar guru?

For one thing, I’m doing it already, whether I want to or not. My internal editor automatically yells at me when I come across language errors in anything I’m reading. I’m doing the work anyway, so I might as well get paid for it.

Also, it’ll make me a better writer, and I won’t have to spend as much time wondering about the little things. Is it A.M., AM, or a.m.? Should I use “toward” or “towards”? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Is it “I feel bad” or “I feel badly”? Are sentence fragments “wrong”? (By the way, the answers are, respectively – they’re all correct, “toward” is American and “towards” is British, it depends on the sentence, it’s “I feel bad,” and sentence fragments are perfectly acceptable in formal writing if used sensibly.)

Besides, programming and copyediting aren’t all that different. Both require a careful eye for small textual details while staying mindful of the larger purpose. Both require a technical understanding of syntax and semantics. Both are populated by professional geeks.

Most importantly, this stuff is actually fun for me. Reading The Chicago Manual of Style, scouring Grammar Girl’s website, finding out which rules are legitimate and which (like “don’t split infinitives”) are nonsense, learning the difference between “confidant” and “confidante” – I really get a kick out of this stuff.

The question is: can I get paid for it? Stay tuned, Hypothetical Reader!

5 responses to “Copyediting for Fun and (Maybe) Profit

  1. I love that kind of stuff. I was just reading a spy novel where the main character was talking to his boss on the phone, only he knew it wasn’t really his boss because the imposter misused “contact,” “presently,” “decimate,” and one other word. That’s also one reason I like the Nero Wolfe books (Wolfe once burned a dictionary in his fireplace because it said that “imply” and “infer” could be used interchangeably).

  2. I thought about “presently” because of a magazine cover, which I talked about on my blog: (it’s a longish post, but most of the word-related stuff is after the subhead).

  3. Hi,
    It was a million years ago when I was a copytaker on the London Evening News and subsequently on the Daily Telegraph. I loved the people I worked with there who were so pedantic. The language and grammar was what they lived for. You had to be utterly correct when you were copying the latest theatre review.

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