A Dozen Solid Lessons Learned in Copyediting Class

The copyediting class in the book publishing program gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to consult and follow a style guide, as well as edit a manuscript for clarity, coherence, consistency and correctness. The following is a lighthearted look at the most important things I took away from the class.

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1. Copyediting is, at heart, a series of tiny problems to solve. And each one you solve makes the world a better place.

2. People are going to disagree. They might even disagree with me, or (anything is possible) I might disagree with them. This is okay; no heads will explode, globs of space-time continuum will not become stuck in my hair and have to be cut out with scissors.

3. Careful queries teach, careless queries offend. Learn to tell the difference.

4. Always consider the reader. Readers are very important. Secretly as important than the person who’s paying you. Copyeditors are, in fact, double agents. /cue spy music/

5. Don’t take on too much. It leads to missed deadlines and tears and semi-public meltdowns in supermarket bathrooms.

6. Copyediting requires time and focus, and sometimes a shot of whiskey and a lot of cursing. Do not undercharge. Do not work for free. Unless it seems like a really, really good idea, or the man asking is single and funny and you’re ninety-eight percent sure you’ll be soul mates after a long weekend of photography and seafood-themed cocktails at the coast.

7. There’s a difference between following style guides and reinforcing proper grammar. Grammar is a schoolmarm in sharp glasses who, when you are in error, slaps your palms with a ruler in front of the whole world as you die of humiliation, and a style guide is the same woman without the ruler, who can sometimes be sweet-talked into giving you macaroons. It’s best to listen either way.

8. Difficult clients are like a Kenny Rogers song. “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” When all else fails, grit your teeth and add forty percent.

9. Sometimes writers suck at writing, but I suck at lots of things, so it’s best to be respectful of other people’s learning curves.

10. Ambiguity is only good when it is intentional. Caution: this statement applies only to certain types of writing; any ambiguity in dating website profiles or Ikea furniture assembly instructions is a sure sign that some kind of disaster will soon be taking up space in your living room.

11. It’s important to hear and respect the author’s voice. Hearing voices is a good thing. At the end of the day, just make sure you know which one is yours.

12. I’m not so bad at copyediting, and could, in a pinch, feed my kids doing it. I have, in fact, a Marketable Skill, for which I am grateful.

by Kellelynne H. Riley


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