A World of Petty Tyrannies
January 23, 2023 4:28 AM   Subscribe

When I tell people I earn my living as a copyeditor, I am typically met with one of two responses: rapt admiration or an almost physical revulsion. from The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes by Jeff Reimer [The Bulwark]
posted by chavenet (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as someone who has worked as a copyeditor, I have never been met with either rapt admiration or almost physical revulsion as a result of it. Mostly I got either, "Oh, is that [description of proofreading]?" or less often, "Oh, is that [description of line editing]?" Then I explained the difference. The end.
posted by kyrademon at 4:55 AM on January 23 [27 favorites]

That really made me miss my time in publishing, frustrations and all.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:13 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]

Yeah, my partner is a freelance copyeditor and indexer, she works primarily with small academic publishing houses who don't have the resources to do work in-house. It's good, solid, decently paying work and she's built up a fairly regular client base. It can be monotonous (imagine reading line by line a 500 page dense academic thesis on a topic you don't much care for and you'll get an idea of the work) and our setup only really works because I have a full time salary + benefits that covers most of our expenses. However, she loves it and if you're bookish and introverted it is a good fit for your personality. I couldn't do it though.

I have recommended people in the past check out indexing manuscripts as a potential income stream; the money is reasonably good and the community of indexers who are familiar with the software you use is fairly small. You'd be surprised how much a good index contributes to the enjoyment of a book, especially for electronic books.
posted by fortitude25 at 5:47 AM on January 23 [8 favorites]

Where I work, the basic system is that for anything written that will be seen by an outside audience, there is first a "peer review" and then it would typically go to the tech editing group to get polished. (Then there can be additional layers of QA/QC review above that, but that depends on what it is and where it is going.) It usually works pretty well, allowing the often-rough writing of the technical specialists to become at least readable by the time it gets to the professional editors.

We had a hire a few years ago who was awesome at his work, really qualified and competent and fun to work with. But. he hated having his work edited so much just at the peer level that he actually quit over that. His writing was not that great, but pretty much just as you would expect for someone who went to school in a technical subject and probably never wrote anything longer than a lab report -- that was as-expected and not an issue. But what is expected is that people will receive their feedback, grumble and fuss a bit, and then start the process of slowly learning to improve. Once they've improved a bit, they start peer reviewing others' work and that is what usually gets people to see the limitations of their own writing. For anything complicated, the professional editors serve as the backstop.

He was so offended at having grammar and layout issues pointed out and corrected that he blew up, stopped communicating, and then a few weeks later announced his new job (where, we all hoped for his sake, no editing was going to be needed.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:42 AM on January 23 [9 favorites]

The most surprising thing to me as a copyeditor was finding out that many authors, especially newer ones, had never been taught the difference between grammar and style. I'd ask, say, if they wanted small numbers spelled out or in numerals (ten vs. 10), or whether they wanted to use Oxford commas, and they'd ask me which method was the grammatically correct one. Quite a few were very surprised to learn that there are multiple correct ways to do things and the real issue was simply consistency, rather than grammatical accuracy.
posted by kyrademon at 6:52 AM on January 23 [35 favorites]

What a wonderful article! Having been a copyeditor, I don't think anyone has ever expressed the sheer stupidity and misery of that job as well as this author. Hours and hours picking over the tiniest parts of a meaningless paper... and yes, you are a journeyman. Or a journeywoman, which is worse. I was naive enough to think I could transfer into other fields with a "foot in the door" and the result was learning just how what a silly girl I was, over and over again. Along with the style manuals, I learned that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was, or rather that I did have some smarts but not ever enough to be useful elsewhere, which I suppose is a useful life lesson but not a pleasant one at all.

I don't think he quite gets into all the emotional labor involved, though. Wherever I worked, all the authors had gone through endless rounds of control from their peers and superiors and would be intensely frustrated by the time their paper or presentation or book got to editing. Because I wasn't on their intellectual or professional level, they could dump out on me and I had to bite my tongue while they cried and screamed (figuratively or literally). I think the ones that weren't openly upset saw me as a very fancy, very slow version of Grammarly.

By the time I stopped, I was furious at them and at myself for ever thinking that I ever had an idea to contribute to the world. Still am, actually.
posted by kingdead at 8:00 AM on January 23 [13 favorites]

The main job of the group I work in is software technical support, but we are also required to document new issues (bug fixes, answers to common customer questions, instructional guides) that aren't already in our knowledgebase, which is a never-ending task. The ticket-opening process includes allowing the customer to review existing documents that may relate to their current problem and possibly give them a solution right then and there. So it's obvious that better documentation will result in our team eventually receiving fewer support tickets - although we're never going to find ourselves with nothing to do!

I've had a long-standing grievance at how unprofessional, inconsistent, and outright terrible writing of most of my fellow techies. Fortunately for the past few months I've been able to focus almost exclusively on improving the content of both existing and new documents as well as proactively creating new content. I find I enjoy all of it - writing, technical accuracy reviews, and the equivalent of line editing (to the point of massively rewriting many of those documents) - and I've been getting a lot of positive feedback from management for my efforts.

So what I'm saying is, I'm due for some rapt admiration* (and a raise, but that's not something Metafilter can help me with with which Metafilter can help me)!

*I'll take a pass on the revulsion, thanks
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:55 AM on January 23 [10 favorites]

I once got fired for forgetting to remove a snarky comment in a paper I was copyediting. In my defense, it was a really funny comment.
posted by goatdog at 9:55 AM on January 23 [25 favorites]

I was hired once to write a style guide for a magazine. I enshrined all my private preferences, the little mechanical details that take on outsize significance in the world of the copyeditor, with absolute authority—a law code for my own personal kingdom.

"They give you all the faults they had
And then some extra, just for you."
posted by clew at 10:04 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]

I took a technical class once upon a time where the manual was so bad that I demanded a refund -- and offered to send them fixes for their sorry documentation.

They took me up on both, and I edited a number of their class materials (usually five books for each week-long class)...until their writers objected to paying $500.00 for the service. Each student paid about $5000 to take the class, so this was pocket change by comparison. They couldn't see any problem, and the publisher couldn't convince them of the need.

These were flat busted documents, too, both style-wise and in terms of having simple, factual errors. The only really good one I ever handled was written by someone who grew up in Europe, not speaking English as a native. *headdesk*
posted by wenestvedt at 10:22 AM on January 23 [7 favorites]

And of course, half an hour after I wrote my last comment, I notice a grammatical error in it. Sigh.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:33 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]

Just here to say thanks for this. I really loved it -- the little details about this kind of work, the crisp writing style, the perspective on reading and writing and thinking.
posted by The Baffled King at 11:05 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]

In the 1980s, the pop.sci. glossy Natural History contracted to give me €750 for 3,000 words on my then research [metaprev]. I wrote my 3,000 words, smugly thinking I'd made a pretty good fist of explaining our work to Jo Public. Their copy editor ripped through it with a blue pencil and reassembled the bits into a much more direct and engaging form; and sent it back to me. I polished the editor's science and sent it back to them. In due course it was published and they sent me a cheque for $750+FedEx&PhoneExpenses. I've been on Team Rapt Admiration ever since.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:46 AM on January 23 [14 favorites]

Here also to say huge thanks for this.
It felt like an unexpectedly warm handshake from a delightful stranger on a cold day!
(Now back to the current ms, with a tiny groan...).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:06 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Favorite line:
And the rest, it is my solemn duty to report, is bad.
Those who read my hastily typed ccomments [sic], often containing typos, may be surprised to hear that when my first novel got to the line editing stage at the publisher, they realized they didn't have to do anything to it. They asked for the digital file and apparently just used that, as is. Yes, it was a big publisher. Yes, I have been an English teacher. No, I didn't make my students' papers bleed, because correcting papers doesn't teach students to find and fix their mistakes themselves.

But I would never make it as a copy editor. I simply don't have it in me. My reason, which the author points out, is:
books can be sorted into the following categories: There are terrible books, there are bad books, there are decent books, there are good books, and there are excellent books.
And he never edited one of the excellent ones.

I simply couldn't wade through all that (I would characterize mine as decent). Though my students' writing was often terrible, it was also unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny. Also, my students, at least, were young and I had hopes I could teach them something. I also had the power to make them do the work.
posted by Peach at 1:27 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

When I was on the copy desk at Slate, one of the first instructions I was given was that a certain blog columnist was never to be copyedited. (This was the early to mid aughts, so blogs were still all over the place, though I always found it weird that a column was a blog somewhat adjacent to the main publication.) Apparently a copyeditor had hurt his widdle feewings once years ago and he was such an important and vital thinker that he required no editing by cretinous halfwits who cared about such mundane rules as house style. On the rare occasions he wrote a regular piece for the main pages, it was a battle to see who could avoid claiming his article the best. He was just such an asshole, but so were a lot of their writers.

It was definitely more in keeping with the response of revulsion that I was used to. I’ve only occasionally been met with enthusiasm, never rapt awe, certainly, although I do know plenty of people who think it’s cool, especially if an author thanks me in a book they’ve just read. And that’s a fairly decent response, I’ll take it.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 2:01 PM on January 23 [7 favorites]

My experience has been that whenever I am asked what I do, and I say I am an editor, I have to pronounce it carefully and distinctly, because otherwise people hear it as "auditor" and then the room clears out.
posted by orange swan at 3:00 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

MetaFilter: In my defense, it was a really funny comment.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:39 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

Kitten kaboodle: do you have an "Only Fans" or similar set-up to reveal the blog columnist's name to idly fascinated parties?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:09 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

I love the copyeditors who worked on my books.
posted by doctornemo at 5:02 PM on January 23 [7 favorites]

Every copyeditor* who has worked on my books has made them infinitely better. The action sequences, specifically, didn't sing until a talented copyeditor followed my confusing tangle of prepositions and wove them into something great. For all of you in the comments here who are copyeditors and who didn't get effusive praise and thanks, thank you so so so sosososososso much for making our work better.

* Except the one who wanted to argue that turnips were not taxonomically named "purple and white" when I was simply describing the actual appearance of a turnip. They also wanted me to think about changing the name of the lead character for being too unusual. My protagonist's contemporaries included Katniss, Renesseme, Rhine and Eadlyn. Protag's name? Zora.
posted by headspace at 6:24 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

No, I didn't make my students' papers bleed, because correcting papers doesn't teach students to find and fix their mistakes themselves.

I'm dying to know what DOES teach them that?

They also wanted me to think about changing the name of the lead character for being too unusual... Protag's name? Zora.

There are TWO Gilbert and Sullivan characters named Zorah! What better recommendation can you get than that?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:30 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

do you have an "Only Fans" or similar set-up to reveal the blog columnist's name to idly fascinated parties?

I laughed out loud, thank you for that. I would totally love to dish on people at the magazine but I always feel like it's not as much fun now, because my time there is so far in the past. There were some great, great people I worked with, and probably just as many who were garbage. You know how you can kind of tell what someone's like when you see them interact with service people, like waiters? I remember ticking off my list of "yup, that's what I thought" at one of our staff retreats where we went to a restaurant, and I watched some of the big names treat the wait staff like dirt--it wasn't only us lowly copyeditors. I just went and looked up some of the people I worked with and was kind of gobsmacked to find that some of them got even worse after I left.

Although I feel like I can safely say this, since he's dead: Christopher Hitchens was a piece of shit.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 6:52 PM on January 23 [8 favorites]

One of the sweetest, most meaningful compliments I ever received was as a note left by a copyeditor who did a pass on one of my books, memorable at least partially because it was from the copyeditor. I wish I knew who they were. I think about them often.
posted by TangoCharlie at 7:36 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

!! Can you tell us what it said??
posted by clew at 8:36 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

@clew - not without blushing. I only really remember their general sentiment and the feeling of sitting at my desk, receiving the kind words, and thinking “and they read a lot of books, they would know!”
I’ve been lucky.
posted by TangoCharlie at 9:07 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]

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