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Bad Copy-Editors and How Not To Be One

One of my favorite modern authors, Seanan McGuire, is editing her next book. This is usually a call for rejoicing (and, of course, it is) but she’s taken to twitter to complain about the copy-editor assigned to her. Quite justifiably so.

The twitter rant in question, however, could be used as a lesson to other copy-editors on what not to do.

Always, Always Turn On Track Changes

In the end, this is not your book that you’re editing, and the author should have the right to approve all changes, no matter how small. Turn on track changes and keep up with the versions, this should be step one for every job. Always.

Find is your friend. Global Replace Is Not.

Let’s say you are editing a writer who overuses a particular word or phrase, consistently misspells a particular word, or who thinks adverbs are the best thing since sex. You might think a global find-and-delete or find-and-replace is the easiest way to go. It’s not. It’s the laziest way to go.

The Find functionality in most word processors is absolutely one of your greatest tools, but you should always use it only to do that. Context is important, and Find-and-Replace or Find-and-Delete can’t understand context. Only you, as the copy-editor, can do that. It is also always apparent when Find-and-Replace is used, which makes it apparent to the client that you were being lazy.

Automatic Grammar Checkers Are No Substitute For Human Eyes

Part of me suspects that the CE in question ran the manuscript through a grammar checker and just changed everything it flagged. As good as some grammar checkers are, they are not always correct and flag just as many false errors as they miss actual mistakes. Use a good grammar checker if you feel you must, but it’s also important to actually read closely and check the things it flags (and the things it does not) yourself.

Don’t Be A Rules Lawyer

Especially in fiction and especially in dialogue, occasional bad grammar can be a stylistic choice. Again, this is where it’s important to actually read what you’re editing so that you can understand the context and where it is actually important to fix the grammar, and where it is not.

“Rules Lawyer” is a term from D&D for a player who is a stickler for rules to the point of making the game no fun for anyone else. This is not a thing you want to be as a copy-editor. In the end, you want the final product to be an enjoyable read.

Related: If You Don’t Know The Rule, Look It Up

No one, no matter how educated or intelligent, has perfect grammar. The best things you can have on your desk as a copy-editor are a dictionary, a good grammar manual, and the style guide your publisher prefers. In my case, as a freelance editor, I have multiple style guides. This CE failed here on several points: they did not understand semicolons, they split several compound words that should not have been split, and they did not understand the use of the singular “they.” All of these problems could have been solved by consulting one of the three references.

The singular “they” is a topic of some debate these days, but it has been in use since before Shakespeare and in today’s diverse gender landscape is sometimes the best pronoun to use for certain characters. This should be the author’s choice, not yours.

Pay Attention To Your Setting

As Seanan McGuire writes a lot of urban fantasy, I feel that I can assume the manuscript in question was an urban fantasy novel of some sort. The CE on multiple occasions changed the names of animals and monsters that exist within the setting (and in some cases animals that exist in reality). This. Is. Just. Not. Done.

As I said before, this is not your book. You don’t get to name the monsters. You just don’t. If you try to do something like this you deserve to be fired. Imagine if some copy editor had said to Tolkien “Hey, I don’t like that word, orc. Let’s call them bullies instead.”