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The Tale of Two Copyeditors: The Picky and the Thoughtful

Every year, I review hundreds of applications from copyeditors seeking work at DLA Editors & Proofers.  They send resumes, work samples and references, and introduce themselves in a variety of ways.  Whether they realize it or not, in almost all cases I can tell immediately, just by reading over their cover letters, whether they will make a good candidate for our copy editing services.  The two easiest types to identify, assuming they have the requisite knowledge and experience, are what I like to call the “picky” and the “thoughtful” copyeditor.

The Case for the Picky Copyeditor

The case for the picky copyeditor is a strong one.  In no other applications will I find a greater expression of self-confidence and belief in his or her ability to provide the best copy editing services possible.  In their cover letters, the picky copyeditors make statements like: “I can spot a misplaced comma a mile away” and “I have a knack for finding errors; I see them in everything I read.”  They have no doubt in their knowledge of punctuation, spelling and grammar, and they distinguish with clear precision when something is right and when it is wrong.  Anything that does not follow the rules leaps out at them, and they cannot rest until they have corrected it.

The Case for the Thoughtful Copyeditor

The case for the thoughtful copyeditor is, at least at first, more subtle.  In most other applications, I will find candidates expressing a much greater confidence in their talents, skills and experience, even in cases when such confidence is entirely unjustified.  In the cover letters of thoughtful copyeditors, by contrast, I will find statements like “I try to make the world a better place one comma at a time,” and I will not find statements like “I believe my experience makes me perfectly suited for the job.”  Thoughtful copyeditors recognize that not every copy editing position is perfect for every copyeditor, and that sometimes writing is more engaging and successful when it does not strictly follow every punctuation, spelling and grammar rule.

The Famous Winston Churchill Example

One of the most famous examples to illustrate the difference between a picky copyeditor and a thoughtful copyeditor is one that is attributed to Winston Churchill.  It stems from the rule that a sentence—and, for that matter, a clause or phrase—should not end in a preposition.  Rumor has it that when reading over a speech he was to give, Mr. Churchill found that a picky copyeditor had corrected every word of the text to follow that rule.  To express his dismay at seeing the result, and at the same time to illustrate his point, Mr. Churchill stated: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put,” instead of the easier “This is the sort of bloody nonsense that I will not put up with.”

The Insensitive vs Caring Copyeditor

Whether the story about Mr. Churchill is actually true or not, it reveals something insightful about the editing experience, both from the point of view of the copyeditor and from that of the person who receives the edited document.  It shows that not every punctuation, grammar and even spelling rule is meant to be followed without consideration of the person for whom the document is being edited.  The picky copyeditor will not recognize this and instead will make corrections according to every rule every time an item is found that does not adhere strictly to the editor’s understanding of the rule.  The person receiving the edited document will be angry and as a result most likely dismiss all the corrections categorically—even if some of them improve the document significantly— concluding only that the copyeditor is incompetent.

On the other hand, the thoughtful copyeditor, with the same knowledge of the rules as the picky copyeditor, may not always correct an item, even if it technically breaks a rule.  The thoughtful copyeditor recognizes that not every rule is meant to be followed in every case and that often the text is more successful when not every rule is followed.  Further, the thoughtful copyeditor recognizes the truth when it comes to the rules, which is that some of them—like the use of the serial or Oxford comma—are actually up to personal preference.

Posted in  Copy Editing
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