Photo: Doris Hausen
You might think you can learn to copyedit by taking a class, but I promise, even if your class does a great job of exposing you to a style manual and the general practices of editing, it can only scratch the surface. To learn well, you must have a period of feedback—the longer, the better—from a mentor.
Sadly, for most new copyeditors, and especially for the lonely freelancer, “mentorship” most often comes in the form of angry writers. But don’t worry! That can actually be highly effective. The trick is to stop crying, put aside your tender ego, and carefully consider the likelihood that the writer is right.
Meanwhile, how is a person supposed to get good at this craft? If you can’t apprentice yourself to an experienced supervisor, I recommend spending some time online. Here are three things you can learn from the Internet.
1. How not to copyedit
The Internet is filled with copyeditor horror stories. Writers love to rail about their trauma under the knife of an overeager and undertrained comma tyrant. Google the phrase “bad copyediting” or “bad editor” and brace yourself. Some of the war stories will be unfair (and some will be badly written), but in this exercise you are not allowed to get defensive. Rather, listen to how you are perceived and feared; recognize yourself and the potential you have to inflict pain and suffering; and vow to do no harm—the first rule of copyediting. It’s not that difficult: if you never meddle without knowing the reason (chapter and verse), and if you always query instead of editing when you aren’t sure, you’ll be fine.
Tip: Do not engage in the comments section of bad-copyeditor posts. That will only lead to grief. Lurk but don’t touch.
2. What the experts are thinking
Think about this: most people, after they’ve been away from school for a decade or two, assume that what they learned in science or history has been updated since then. They wouldn’t dream of asserting that their 1990-vintage textbooks are still the ultimate authority—let alone their 1960-vintage teachers. But in English grammar? If we learned it when we were twelve—or read it in Strunk & White—by George, it is rock-ribbed law.
But it’s not. Style and grammar rules change, and acceptance levels change. The problem, of course, is knowing how to judge whether a usage or construction has become acceptable to our expected audience. After all, editors need to be conservative. It’s not good for business to be on the cutting edge of experimental grammar. And that’s where continuing education comes in. In order to stay current, we need to read. For example, up-to-date editors know that linguists and language experts are not only not outraged by the singular they, but in many cases encourage it—and that’s important to know, whether you agree or not.
So where do you learn about language and writing trends? Books can be outdated by the time they’re printed. You have to read online, and social media is essential for keeping up.
There are many terrific language-writer blogs. A good place to start finding the ones you like best is with the daily news at the Copyediting blog; likewise, Stan Carey at Sentence First occasionally features a post called “Link Love,” with links to the last week or two of language and editing posts he found worthwhile. Katharine O’Moore-Klopf has a page of links to “Profession-Related Reading.” Make note of the home-page URLs of blogs you’d like to follow.
I don’t mean to suggest that you should be checking on all these blogs all the time, like homework. Rather, enjoy browsing when you have time. If you put the URLs of your favorite sites into an RSS feed (an “aggregator”) like Feedly or Netvibes, you can take a look when it’s convenient: you’ll see a list of any sites that have updated since you last checked. Scan down the headlines and excerpts and click through to any that look interesting. It’s like creating a newsletter that focuses entirely on your own interests or business.
Twitter can work the same way. If you create a Twitter account in which you follow only language writers and editors, the stream of tweets will contain advice, humor, and links to helpful news articles about language and editing. Dip in now and then to see what they’re all talking about. Jettison anyone who tweets six times an hour about what her cat is up to. A few weeks ago, the hot topic was the discovery that the Oxford English Dictionary lists “figuratively” as one of the meanings of literally. It’s a prime example of how spending ten minutes skimming through the tweets and posts can allow a person to gauge the progress of a particular controversy—and get a few laughs along the way. In this case, I learned that most good dictionaries have listed this meaning for quite a while, and I saw confirmation of what I already knew: that many people misunderstand the purpose of dictionaries, believing that they are somehow showing approval for a meaning when they include it.
3. How to solve almost any problem
When we’re working, it’s common for a given style or construction to look wrong, and then look right, and then look wrong . . . and sometimes it’s hard to look up the answer because we don’t know exactly what to look up. That’s where the online community of copyeditors can help. On Facebook, Twitter, or a listserv like Copyediting-L or the Forum at The Chicago Manual of Style Online, a writer or editor can post a question and hope for good advice from peers. Even if you get conflicting answers, odds are it will at least help you articulate the issue. And at least you won’t feel alone.
So take the classes, and read the books. But to continue growing and learning and loving your craft, stay current—and stay online.