The life of a copy editor

I’ve written about fact-checking before, and the benefits of honing this skill, because it’s a good way to make decent money right out the door while you’re on your way to becoming the next David Foster Wallace. However, a lot of people feel that fact-checking isn’t for them (and that’s putting it kindly). If you’re one of them, I’d like to suggest you brush up on the wonderful world of copy editing. Copy editing is something that can be an entry-level job, or an expectation of a more broad-description entry-level job, but it can also be done on a freelance basis.

Copy editing is as meticulous as fact-checking, but in a different way. A copy editor needs to have memorized dozens (if not hundreds) of style quirks that vary from publication to publication, and be aware enough of her own limitations to recognize when something needs to be looked up.

It’s not just about looking for spelling and grammar errors, either. Those should have already disappeared (for the most part) by the time it reaches your desk. published a good copy editor’s checklist that includes all the things a good copy editor should look out for, including fairness, context, spelling of proper nouns, house style and display writing.

One thing to realize about copy editing, though, is that it can consume your whole life. And it can make you sound crazy most of the time.

A quote from Lori Fradkin, former copy editor at New York:

“The word is douche bag. Douche space bag. People will insist that it’s one closed-up word—douchebag—but they are wrong. When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka. You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve. They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.

“I know this because, during my three-plus years as a copy editor, I had this argument many, many times.”

I can relate to this, because I have certainly had similar, and equally vulgar, arguments with classmates and colleagues.

Another excerpt from an interview with Mary Norris of The New Yorker on why it’s important for a copy editor to be filled with self-doubt:

“It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance!”

So while copy editing can be maddening, it can also be rewarding and thrilling, especially for the perfectionists out there. You’ll remember for years to come that time you were copy editing a feature about beef that had been read a dozen times already and, in the last paragraph, spotted the word “stake” when it should have been “steak.”

And don’t even get me started on the embarrassment that a copy editor can protect his magazine from by noticing a term like “public figure” is missing a consonant.

* Image from I Can Has Cheezburger. (Note: I have this printed out and stuck to my bulletin board at home.)