Subversive Copy Editor: Random Advice for Copyeditor Newbies

If you’re new to copyediting, consider these snippets of advice. (Be sure to check with your supervisor if any of them contradict your usual instructions.)

  • Don’t query a word or spelling or locution without looking it up. If a writer uses an unfamiliar word or spelling more than once, it’s very possibly intended. It’s easy to paste “eat one’s cake and have it, too” into a search engine and learn that the writer doesn’t have it backward.

  • Don’t waste a writer’s time by continually asking for approval. (“Okay? If you don’t like this, I can put it back.”) Rather, indicate your flexibility in the cover letter. On the manuscript, use queries for giving or asking for information.

  • Save grief later by e-mailing the author before you make editing decisions that are hard to undo. (“Re romantic/Romantic: do you have a system for capping? Should I meddle?”)

  • Don’t track changes that will be invisible or confusing on a black-and-white printout, such as deletions of hyphens.* If the editing is difficult to read, the writer won’t easily see that the results read well.

  • Be conservative in editing until you have more experience. You should be ready to explain every mark you put on the page.

  • Remember the copyeditor’s creed: First, do no harm.


How to Become a Better Writer

Everyone wants to communicate effectively, so here are some helpful tips to take your writing to the next level. You will need reading material, a pen or pencil, a notebook, a dictionary and the ability to handle constructive criticism.

Step 1. Read as often as you can. Reading other people's work is one of the best ways to learn more about writing. And it can inspire you, too. Read books you like as well as books that are recommended to you. Venture into other styles and genres.

Step 2. Research before you write. Develop a broad knowledge of your subject to bring out the best in your writing.

Step 3. Find ways to build your vocabulary. Sign up for word of the day e-mails or crossword puzzles. If you run across a word you don't know, look it up in a dictionary.

Step 4. Simplify your writing. Learn to cut out extra words and sentences that don't add anything.

Step 5. Always have a notebook handy to write down ideas. Take time away from the computer to write in your notebook, which may free up your writing.

Step 6. Get your work critiqued by giving it to trusted friends, mentors, and teachers to read. Pick people who you know will be honest with you. Once you find someone who gives good notes, develop a relationship with them. Here's a little known fact: Emily Dickinson only published seven of her 1,700 poems during her lifetime.