Photo: Alyson Hurt
A few months ago I encountered a bank of hotel elevators that made a big impression on me. This might be old hat to you,* but to me it was a wondrous invention: there were no buttons inside the elevators for choosing your floor.
Instead, you chose your floor from a panel outside the elevators. You pressed 14, and a display told you which elevator to wait for. Meanwhile someone else pressed 5 and was given a different elevator. If a conference session ended and twenty people rushed the elevators, they would each pick a floor and obediently sort themselves into little groups outside their assigned elevators.
Once inside, everyone was a little creeped out that there were no buttons for choosing a floor. “What if I picked the wrong floor?” someone asked. I had to admit I’d already done that. I’d had no choice but to get out on the wrong floor and ring for another elevator.
Over the next few days, everyone was talking about the elevators, and nearly everyone I talked to hated them. In spite of my initial detour, I loved them. If you have six elevators and thirty people going to fourteen floors, you can either let the crowd randomly and inefficiently choose the number of elevators, floors, and stops—or you can let a nifty computer algorithm minimize the number of stops each elevator makes by assigning the elevator based on floor choice. What’s not to love? Waits are short; trips are fast.
So . . . I know you can’t wait to see what cockamamie* metaphor for copyediting this inspires. It’s this: copyeditors can improve their efficiency by devising strategies before editing begins.
I’ve reviewed plenty of manuscripts where a copyeditor has gotten into deep trouble by conforming a document to house style when it doesn’t suit. A thoughtful review before barging in would have prompted doubts: is it really wise to change all book and article titles to headline casing? Will the section numbers you’re deleting be needed later?
To preview a document, look closely at any material that isn’t a straight text paragraph. Look especially at the styling of subheads, lists, bullets, tables, and captions. With regard to each element make a strategy:
—If no particular style dominates, plan on editing to house style.
—If an element is not written to house style but is clear and consistent, ask whether it can stay as is. If you have to get permission for this, your best argument (after the most obvious one of saving time) is that in changing it, you are likely to introduce errors and typos.
—If an element is in a foreign style and is sloppy and inconsistent, look over all the instances of that element and devise the most efficient remedy. Don’t assume it will be your house style.
There’s nothing more disheartening to a copyeditor than having to start over midway through a job in order to cut losses. There’s no quick button to press once you’ve committed to a bad choice. Better to make the right choices before you get on board.
*I’m older than you, so I get to say things like that.