I have been enjoying your blog on editing for quite some time. In particular, I appreciated your tips for newbie copy editors. I have been working freelance as a copy editor for a couple years with scientific and technical documents. I have recently expanded to copy editing and proofreading novels, which is a bit of a change. In general, would you agree that a copy editor should avoid making changes to the text unless a documentable style change and/or grammatical error has occured? What are your thoughts on using queries (in the comments) to attract the author’s attention to my suggestions?
Your first question is the fundamental question of copyediting: when to step in and when to resist. Having this kind of judgment is what separates a beginner from an experienced editor.
On the surface, it seems like a good idea to avoid making changes to the text unless a documentable style change or grammatical error has occurred, and for someone with very little editing experience, it’s the right approach. However, there are two big problems with this approach:
—There are often excellent reasons to do otherwise.
—Rigidity rarely serves the reader or the writer.
I’m sure you can already think of examples in your own editing where you felt that it would be counterproductive or even ruinous to follow the style guide, or where the writer wanted to break a rule for a reason, and you got the point and agreed that it would be best. This is the foundation of “subversive” copyediting: we aren’t robots who mechanically apply a style guide, and we aren’t there to slap the wrist of the writer for breaking rules. Instead, we use the style manual as a guide for working with a writer and the text; we use a style sheet to keep track of departures from style; and over time we learn from mistakes and successes what works best. We use common sense and judgment.
As for question 2, the comments feature in Microsoft Word is a tool many editors use for querying writers, and it seems to work well. The main danger is not with the technology, but that an editor will abuse it in order to bombard the writer with unnecessary communication. I once vetted a manuscript where the copyeditor had mechanically inserted the same comment every time she encountered a particular difficulty, dozens of times: “AU: Did you intend to hyphenate here? Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate hyphenates this compound.”
Here are a few guidelines for using comments:
—If you find yourself writing the same comment more than a couple of times, consider writing a blanket query in your cover letter and flagging each instance in a more economical way.
—Resist writing justifications for editing that is self-explanatory.
—Resist citing chapter and verse of your style manual. (Save that for negotiating differences of opinion.)
—Phrase questions in a way that prevents going another round. If you write, “Inconsistency intended?” the author can reply with an unhelpful “Yes.” A more explicit query will get you what you want: “Change to 1932, as above?”
—Remember that reading a comment takes the writer out of the text and costs time. Make it worth the trip.
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