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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

In defence of the humble copyeditor’s writing

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

The post also known as ‘Why you shouldn’t judge a copyeditor by their writing’. Or, ‘Something whimsical because it’s nearly Christmas and I’ve already eaten so much Christmas cake I can barely see’.

Have you ever spotted an error in an email from a copyeditor and thought, HA! I’ve caught them out!? Or worse: Perhaps their work isn’t as good as I thought it was…?

I want to dispel some myths about why professionals make mistakes too and offer a defence of the humble (or, as we may see, not so humble) copyeditor.

The myths

Some common myths about errors and why they are absolutely untrue:

  • ‘It’s laziness. The copyeditor just didn’t check their work.’ Not true. We copyeditors check our work more than the average human. It’s in our muscle memory; we can’t help ourselves. We also know that we will be judged by our words. Our careers could rise or fall on the placement of a comma. Or so it sometimes feels.

  • ‘They’re a rubbish copyeditor, they obviously don’t know what they are doing.’ Not true. Even the most highly skilled of us make mistakes. More on this below.

  • ‘They were in a rush.’ Oh well, all right. This one might be true.

The difference between copyediting and writing

I’ve discovered some dreadful clangers in my own writing. Recently, while someone was editing my work, they pointed out to me that I had mixed up ‘tail’ and ‘tale’. It got me wondering how this could possibly happen, given what I do for a living.

I applied some thought to how I conduct my writing and editing and I noticed something interesting. I realised that copyediting is primarily a ‘seeing’ activity. I see the words on the page. Whereas, when I’m writing, it’s a ‘listening’ activity. I hear dictation in my head that tells me what to write. I transcribe it as I type.

This explained to me why I so often miss-type homophones – words that sound the same, but have different meanings. As long as the word sounds correct in my head, I don’t for a moment notice that the text on the page is wrong. This solved the mystery about ‘tail’ and ‘tale’. When I typed out the wrong one, a quick scan told me it sounded like what I had heard in my dictation and, therefore, was correct.

When I’m copyediting, I think I do a combination of seeing and listening. I hear sentences spoken in my head and this tells me whether they make sense or whether they are poorly phrased. A lot of copyeditors read text aloud to themselves to pick up these problems.

But it is also absolutely necessary to see the actual text on the page. Only this way can you pick up on a homophone that has been substituted for another word. Only this way can you determine whether capital letters have been applied correctly – we don’t speak them aloud.

Hubris, my old friend

‘But,’ I hear you say, ‘you said you check and re-check your work. Don’t you notice the errors then?’

In a word: No.

And this is not a reason to mistrust editors. It is, in fact, the very opposite. It is the reason why everyone needs one.

Because no one can edit their own work. This is as true for copyeditors as it is for everyone else. Perhaps even more so. We’re quite confident in our abilities to write. And perhaps more likely than others to believe our text is error free. It feels like it should be after all the training we have undertaken.

The reason a copyeditor’s job is so difficult is because people sometimes read what they expect to read (i.e. the correct version), rather than what is actually there. Research has shown that the brain can read words as long as the first and last letter are correctly placed, even if other letters are jumbled. This is why mistakes like ‘manger’ for ‘manager’ or ‘bauble’ for ‘bubble’ are so difficult to spot.

A copyeditor must learn to turn off the brain function that skips letters and read exactly what is in front of them. I often have to re-read a sentence more than once to be certain I have successfully achieved this.

At least if you come to a text without expectation, you have some chance of spotting that spelling error. If you have written and read and reread that text many times, you have almost no hope of seeing it objectively. The best a copyeditor can do in these circumstances is put the text away for several weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Which is rather difficult to do with your everyday emails…

In the spirit of Christmas

Have I persuaded you yet? If not, my parting words will be: to err is human; to forgive, divine. Spare a forgiving thought for your freelance copyeditors this busy festive season. And overlook those little errors just this once.


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