What Copyediting Classes Taught Me

Editors have a tough time of it. They have to correct a writer’s work to adhere to whatever style manual the publisher mandates, whether it’s the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Style Manual, or some industry-specific guide such as the American Medical Association Manual of Style. They also have to make exceptions from these manuals per the publisher’s inhouse style guide and more exceptions per the author’s style sheet. Somehow, they have to do all this without insulting the author or altering their voice or tone, or the meaning of their words. And they have to produce something the publisher will print.

If this sounds like a tall order, it is. Everything I write goes through an editor and while the queries and red lines have decreased over the years, I suspect they’ll never disappear completely. There is just too much to know and most days, my brain can’t handle it.

Always the eager learner, last year I looked into some editing courses. In addition to simple proofreading, I could choose between light, medium, and heavy copyediting, or developmental editing. Always the glutton for punishment as well, I signed up for the University of California, San Diego’s twelve-credit program comprising four classes and culminating in a copyediting certificate.

Ten years ago I would have poo-pooed the need for such structured lessons. After all, I’ve been an avid reader and writer for decades. What more could there possibly be to learn? Nonetheless, I put my ego aside and jumped into the class discussion. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only student with an ego that needed checking. Apparently, inexperienced editors tend to think they know everything (and don’t mind letting everyone know) while experienced ones know they don’t (and probably never will). So those first few weeks of class were, shall I say… entertaining?

The typical self-proclaimed grammar nerd wouldn’t cut it in today’s English class. It’s not enough to know when to use there, their, or they’re; your or you’re; or even that, which, or who. Brag about your mastery of these words in a copyediting class and you will be laughed out of the whom (Ha ha! A little copyediting who-mor – I mean humor). That’s kid stuff you should have learned in grade school, and my first lesson launched straight into appositive phrases, demonstrative pronouns, adverbial clauses, and subjunctive moods. I swear that last one wasn’t even a thing when I was in school. If it were, surely, I would have remembered it.

Then there’s punctuation. Has there always been such a thing as hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes? I always just called those things “dashes.” Now I have three to choose from (yes, look at that – I ended my phrase with a preposition): the dash above the “p” key (for a hyphen), the Ctrl+Minus on my number pad (for the en dash), and the Ctrl+Alt+Minus (em dash). While I welcome these additions to my writing repertoire, the relaxed rules around some punctuation set my teeth on edge. For example, you would not believe what semicolons are getting away with these days. Remember when phrases before and after a semicolon had to be complete sentences and not simply clauses? Well, now there are exceptions. For something called “readability.” Yeah, I know. Blew my mind too.

If you aced English in high school or even majored in the subject in college, don’t think you’re ahead of the curve. A lot has changed and it keeps on changing. Think about it: the Chicago Manual of Style is in its seventeenth edition. So while you’re perusing a manuscript or online article, mentally judging the author’s writing, consider that what you think is right might not be right anymore. I was taught to never begin a sentence with “or,” “and,” or “but,” or to end one with a preposition (or to never split an infinitive, for that matter). Well, guess what? All OK now – as long as you understood when and why to break those old rules. I was also instructed in the careful use of commas to separate certain clauses and phrases. Nowadays, all those commas aren’t only unnecessary, they’re considered old-fashioned. This is referred to as “open” punctuation style, versus the “closed” style that was drilled into me years ago.

Finally, inclusive language is a huge topic in editing these days. When discussing gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, and an assortment of other topics, what’s in and what’s out changes daily.

I learned a lot in copyediting classes, and I’m looking forward to receiving my certificate from UCSD. I’ll update my resume, my LinkedIn profile, and my About Me page on my website. I’ll frame it, hang it in my office, and post a photo of it on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll keep all those textbooks handy, too, and all those websites bookmarked because there is no way I’ll remember everything I learned. Even if I did, it’s sure to change.

I will remember one thing: copyediting is hard. Really hard. And so my greatest lesson – after all the reading, writing, editing, quizzes, tests, and discussions – is this: I do not want to be a copyeditor. It may have taken me a year to figure that out, but it’s a lesson I will not forget. Period.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 11, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

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