Copy editing: 5 things to keep in mind when you work with a copy editor

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Copy editing: 5 things to keep in mind when you work with a copy editor

Quote from Ernest Hemingway that relates to copyediting: The first draft of anything is shit.You slaved over a piece for days. You researched thoroughly. You wrote, rewrote, did some copy editing and rewrote some more. You made sure every thought, phrase and word was on point. And you feel great about it.

You shouldn’t. Not yet at least.

There’s absolutely no way you can be objective about anything you’ve written. And that’s true whether you’re a seasoned copywriter or a novice scribe. Why? Because you wrote it. So of course you think it’s brilliant.

But yours is the last opinion that matters. Your natural bias is overwhelmingly powerful, and it will obfuscate obvious issues.

Every professional writer knows this. In fact, we’d argue that knowing this is what separates the pros from the amateurs. It’s why newspapers and magazines have managing editors. It’s why ad agencies have creative directors. And it’s why, if you’re creating content for your business, investing in copy editing before you publish is 100% in your best interests.

A good copy editor gives you and your work perspective. They play the role of your audience and evaluate your work from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been staring at it for seven hours.

They’ll call out the groan-worthy wordplays that made you giggle at 3 am but are actually quite silly. They’ll question the assertions you think hold water but really don’t. And they’ll make sure you’re saying what you think you’re saying.

Think of the copy editing process like a dress rehearsal for your work — a chance to perfect it before it goes live.

But before you hand your “masterpiece” over to a copy editor, internalize these truths:

  1. Accept that your work is probably going to get ripped apart in copy editing.
  2. Great quote relevant to copy editing: to avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing , be nothing.Don’t take it personally because it’s not personal. It has everything to do with what’s on the page. This is why you should never have a friend copy edit your work. They’ll pull punches to spare your feelings (sometimes, they don’t even know they’re doing it). A well-taught copy editor is trained to judge what’s on the page and nothing else. And they’re taught to be honest — which is what you’re paying for. Better you get that honesty from one person you’re paying than a million people you’re counting on to take action after reading what you’ve written.

  3. Lumberg says it's okay to disagree. Importnatn to remember for copy editingYou are NOT obligated to agree with everything your copy editor recommends.

    In almost every case, you’ll know your material better than your copy editor does. If they’ve deleted a thought you know is critical, put it back in. A responsible copy editor will track all their changes and provide rationales for any major changes they made or are recommending you make. This’ll make changes super easy to accept or reject. And don’t feel bad if you reject them. Editors have thick skin.

  4. You have every right to ask your copy editor questions.
  5. They work for you. Not the other way around. They’ll tell you what they think, but that’s all it is: an opinion. Now granted, it’s an informed opinion backed by a copy editing education and (hopefully) a ton of experience. But that doesn’t mean it’s the gospel of Luke. If you don’t understand why your copy editor did what they did, speak up. If you want a deeper explanation of their choices, ask for it. A quality copy editor will have answers for you.

  6. You’ll get a better end product if you answer your copy editor’s questions.

    Every heard of WYSIATI? It stands for “What You See Is All There Is.” Here’s a fabulous explanation from the acronym’s coiner:

    It’s a very important concept to grasp if you want to understand the copy editing process, because it’ll remind you that copy editors aren’t mind readers. This is why editors are trained to ask their clients probing questions that help them understand what they see so they can recommend improvements.

    And like any other professional, copy editors get into a groove when they sit down to work on a piece. So the sooner you can answer their questions, the more efficient you’ll make them. Since more and more copy editors are starting to charge by the hour as recommended by the Editor’s Association of Canada, more efficiency for them means a lower bill for you.

  7. Your writing WILL be better.

    And not just the piece you’ve sent through for copy editing. The more you work with an editor, the more little tips and tricks you’ll pick up. And over time, you’ll see fewer and fewer major changes and comments.

    Your first draft may still stink, but it’ll be poo instead of shit.

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