Looking for a copyeditor? This is what to look for.

Meme: the strongest drive isn't sex or money. It's one person's need to change another's copy

Ernest Hemingway famously said that the first draft of anything is shit. And he was right. This is because your first pass is rife with personal biases: what you’d understand, find interesting or deem relevant. Even the way you present your argument is one-sided (even if it’s not), because it’s coming from one person: you.

Part of a copyeditor’s training is to see past those biases to what you’re trying to convey or elicit, and help you bring it out clearly.

As a copyediting company, we’d obviously recommend that every piece of writing, from a dissertation to an email, be reviewed by a second set of eyes. Is that realistic in today’s fast-moving business world? Probably not. But the important pieces should definitely be passed by an editor to make sure they’re saying what you think they’re saying and doing what you need them to do.

So as you start your search for a copyeditor to have on speed dial, here are three things you should be looking for:

A formal copyediting education

Anyone can edit your work, but that doesn’t mean they’re a professional copyeditor. Because not anyone has taken courses in substantive, adaptive and structural editing (editing for meaning, content and readability). They haven’t been taught how to proofread properly, which means being able to spot all the mistakes, not just the glaring ones. Most importantly, they haven’t been taught how to work with writers to make their writing better. Because a good copyeditor is as much a coach as they are a service provider.

In Canada, copyeditors with the most credibility come out of the Ryerson program in Toronto or the Simon Fraser program in Vancouver, or similar programs offered throughout Canada. And in a perfect world, they’re certified by Editors Canada.

 

Rich copyediting experience

Regardless of what you need edited, you want a copyeditor who’s done a ton of that kind of work before. This isn’t to say a junior editor won’t do a good job, but someone who’s been around the block a few times has seen it all.

For example, a junior will have a firm grasp on Chicago style, but a seasoned vet will know where and how most people deviate from that style ¾ and so will spot those mistakes faster.

Also, an experienced copyeditor will have worked with enough personalities to develop a productive style. They’ll have worked with the writer who pushes back on everything (not ideal), the writer who blindly accepts everything (also not ideal), the overthinkers, overwriters, non-grammarians, ESL writers and writer-by-committees. Their approach to each will be constructive, helpful and collaborative.

 

A personality fit

Here’s another Hemingway-ism for you: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and open a vein.” Talk to any writer, from a novelist to a journalist or a copywriter and they’ll absolutely corroborate Ernie. What they produce is very personal ¾ it’s more than a labour of love; it’s a piece of their soul. And they’re very protective of it, no matter how incoherent or awful it may be.

So you have to trust that your copyeditor will adjust without judging. You’ll have to give yourself to the editing process, which can range from uncomfortable to soul-crushing.

And for that to happen, you have to like the person you’re working with. You have to like their energy; their vibe. That’s not to say they have to be the life of the party or your best friend. But that is to say that you’re not going to get on with everybody and that’s okay. There are enough copyeditors out there for everybody. Find one you gel with and taking their feedback will be a lot easier.

An investment in copyediting is a wise decision for any business, publisher, agency, studio or content-producing department. Choosing a trained, experienced, easy-to-like copyeditor might be one of the best decisions you ever make.