The Copyeditor’s Code

Proust MS

Marcel Proust, original ms. “Du côté de chez Swann,” public domain

The Copyediting blog recently posted a graphic based on editor Erin Brenner’s earlier article, “The Typographic Oath” (with a nod to Stan Carey for the borrowed title). The original piece was the final installment in a three-part series. The text, which is laid out on a background of weathered parchment, constitutes the copyeditor’s ten commandments. Brenner notes that she’s riffing on a couple of similar lists as well as feedback sparked by her series, and readily acknowledges that the collection is not complete (“It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all,” she jibes).

Now I realize that her title is offered with tongue planted firmly in cheek; still, I’m a little uncomfortable calling these collective tenets an “oath.” As copyeditors, we’re all about le mot juste, and here’s how M-W 11 defines “oath”:

1 a (1) : a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says (2) : a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.

Pretty heavy stuff. I prefer the more secular term “code,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “a set of ideas or rules about how to behave”—as in an “ethical code” or the “Digital Warrior-Poet’s Code.” I view it as a kind of philosophical framework that informs my approach to the craft.

So with a tip of the editor’s visor to Ms. Brenner and a frank admission that none of the following is original by any means, I offer you the current manifestation of my Copyeditor’s Code.

  • Do no harm. The copyeditor’s Golden Rule. Minimize your footprint and like a conscientious camper, leave no trace (er, other than those messy Tracked Changes, that is). Apply textual triage first; only resort to major surgery where absolutely necessary to save the patient. You may find it helpful to chant this mantra: “It’s not my book, it’s not my book, it’s not my book…”
  • Seek clarity. This, my friends, is the storyteller’s Holy Grail.
  • Stet! Let it stand. The client wields the veto power and reserves the right to ignore your changes. This is his prerogative, so long as the check’s good. If seeing your lovely work undone causes you grief, see mantra above.
  • Be as a green twig, Grasshopper. Breathe. Stay flexible, nimble, and intellectually open. After all, there’s an outside chance that the client who stetted your well-intended edit just might be right.
  • Be an advocate and an ally. Assure your client that you are partners in the pursuit of excellence. The copyeditor bears the dual responsibility of being the reader’s advocate and the writer’s best friend.
  • Don’t condescend. This is a corollary to the point above. Always be professional and collegial. Treat your client as you would like to be treated: be respectful, be diplomatic, be empathetic. Never chivvy, deride, or browbeat. Do your best to instruct and inspire through the medium of editing. Share the love.
  • Collaborate with your client in the service of the reader. Don’t forget for a New York second that the most important member of the storytelling triumvirate is the reader. After all, where would we be without engaged and delighted readers? A truly great editor is a shapeshifter, capable of projecting himself into the psyche of the reader and kenning exactly what will effect that magical connection we so highly prize.
  • Don’t be a prescriptivist. Rule #1: There are no rules. There are only conventions, shibboleths, personal preferences, and pet peeves. Language is perpetually evolving, and you must strive to improve your understanding of the currently accepted guidelines regarding grammar, usage, and style. Study, rinse, repeat. Read good writing—lots of it. Then, with supreme confidence in your mastery of the conventions, acknowledge the universal truth that they are transitory and may be safely ignored to achieve the desired ends of clarity and consistency. Copyediting is a subjective craft; rather than being the pedantic determination of right or wrong, editing is often a choice between good, better, or best. This is the art of editing. This is what distinguishes great editors from good ones. When you can manage this feat without altering the author’s “voice,” you are serving your client well. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Yes, it is kinda Zen…
  • Think. Have a sensible, justifiable reason for every change you make—and verify, verify, verify!
  • Trust your editorial intuition. You’ve invested a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears in fine-tuning it, so listen to your inner editor. If something just doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.
  • Fear not the large vocabulary. There is a time for concision, and a time for indulging in luxurious language (turn, turn, turn). Edit with your heart as well as your head. As a copyeditor, you must be vigilant and fight the Strunk & White curse. Don’t be afraid to allow a difficult word to remain unscathed—even if it has several syllables. Never disrespect your reader by underestimating her intellect. Elegant prose is an endangered species; be a conservationist of succulent verbiage.
  • Strive for efficiency. Time is money. Utilize every trick in the book to streamline your editorial process and workflow, but never let technology trump your education, experience, and common sense.
  • When in doubt, query. Never hesitate to seek clarification—diplomatically, of course.
  • The style sheet is your friend. Don’t depend upon memory, write it down. Aim for consistency. A good style sheet will save your sanity. Tedious? Yes. Indispensable? Absolutely.
  • Never promise “perfect.” As a mere mortal, you will never achieve perfection, and promising your client otherwise can only lead to dark places (see Muphry’s Law). Ernest Hemingway sagely counseled, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master” (and Papa knew from dark places). Whether he was referring to writing or life matters not; they are one and the same.

Do you keep a list of editorial do’s and don’ts? Please share! What would you add or delete?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.


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