Copy editing is another challenging role for an editor. A quality copy editor is an excellent mimic, one who is capable of finding the tone and voice of an author and have it be consistent throughout the length of the manuscript. Copy editing also requires an obsessive attention to detail, an excellent memory, and a sweeping general set of knowledge in order accurately fact check a piece of work. Depending on the type of work being done, it is necessary for the copy editor to be intimately familiar with the style-guides that keep their corner of the industry consistent.
The copyeditor must know all the rules, including the first one: every rule can be broken. That may seem like it could lead to anarchy, but that is why when they find a broken rule in a manuscript they must ask the author this: “Why did you break that rule?” If they find a fragmented sentence, will not simply fix it, they will look to see why it may have been written that way, and if they can’t see why, they must query and find out if the author had good reason. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but the question must be asked. Changes in grammar and usage are advanced rhetorical tools, and explanations for them are necessary.
My favorite anecdote to share with writers when they find themselves breaking rules on accident comes from Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard. It is about a painter who was big in the days of Pollack. His primary medium was painting huge canvasses with house-paint, and then sticking pieces of tape to it in various places. There is a scene where his wife asks him why he does something that anyone could do. He responds by grabbing a piece of charcoal and bringing it to a bare piece of drywall in their kitchen. Minutes later there is a photo-realistic depiction of him and their family on it. It is perfect; something few artists could do with ease. Then he says, “Because I am able do that, but I choose to do this.” In other words, an artist must learn to walk before they can run, and it is up to the copyeditor to keep them honest about their attempts at experimentation with language.
Just as with developmental editing, the tone and voice that a copyeditor uses in their notes and queries can easily affect author/editor relations. Authors can get attached to their words, and while many will often defer to an editor at least as far as most grammatical errors, issues of style and word choice can be contentious. A good copyeditor can get into the head of the author to that point where the choices they make about style and word choice are generally accepted by the author, keeping friction to a minimum.
For my next section on editing, I will discuss more about the editor’s role in handling the many relationships within a given press, and where design, marketing, and the bottom line meet the world of story-telling. (Spoiler: they all happen in the same world.)