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The scholarly copy editor

What does a copy editor do? While there’s a long, boring answer to that question—one that involves innumerable mechanics and rules to remember and one I would discuss in my subsequent posts—a quick one goes something like this: a copy editor, quite simply, puts things in order. Putting things in order in a manuscript requires a copy editor and—equally important—a consistent, transparent, and verifiable system of styles, usages, and conventions as well: a system that the community of scholars, scientists, and discerning readers understand. Therefore, and to be more precise, a copy editor puts things in order not according to what he thinks is correct but according to what is correct per that system of conventions he has been asked to implement. This is a crucial aspect to scholarly copy editing, an understanding of which needs to precede learning the rules and conventions themselves, an aspect many copy editors tend to overlook. Many copy editors tend to impose their opinion—“this reads well for me,” “that sounds right to my ear,” and so forth—on the author’s manuscript, by making changes to text that is correct according to the system of rules and conventions they are supposed to implement.

Consult the applicable reference source

For example, consider the following sentence. “Pace Constant, modern liberty is different from ancient liberty not because the balance of satisfaction from public and private life is different in each period.” Many beginning copy editors would find this sentence confusing or outright incorrect; and what would they do? They alter it to mean something the author never intended or query the author that it is not clear. Either way, the author’s wrath or ridicule is guaranteed. In contrast, a scholarly copy editor, even assuming she initially finds the sentence confusing as well, would not jump into an intervention headlong. Her first action item in such a situation would be to identify the word or phrase that causes the most trouble, in this case likely the word “pace.” Most of us probably never began a sentence with that word or, when we did, perhaps we used it as a noun and not as a preposition. In this situation, a good copy editor consults the dictionary recommended by the publisher for the copy edit in question. Assuming this is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11e, we find that one of the many meanings of “pace,” used as a preposition, is “contrary to the opinion of,” used particularly in philosophy texts. Replace “pace” with “contrary to the opinion of” in the aforementioned sentence and, presto, it reads perfectly now. And Constant here refers to the great nineteenth-century political philosopher Benjamin Constant. One might add a comma after “liberty” and the copy edit of this sentence is complete—no queries to the author needed. Why the comma? That’s about the rule governing restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as we would know.

Make tenable, defensible edits

So what was in operation here during the copy edit of this sentence? It was the scholarly bent of mind of the copy editor. Some copy editors are born with this scholarly approach, some learn it quickly, and some others take a little longer to do so. But the constant thought that “I must be objective, evidence based, and consistent” is the driving force behind any successful copy editor. Therefore, the scholarly copy editor (1) knows when he doesn’t know (and, mind you, this is not easy) and, (2) when he doesn’t know, he doesn’t assume the author has made an error; instead, he looks the standard reference sources up and proves that the author has made an error or has been ambiguous or unclear. This desire to provide proof separates scholarly copy editors from copy editors—there’s a world of difference between the two. Another example might be in order here. Suppose in the book you are copy editing, the author has written an excellent and flawless piece of text but has many times used an unusual word or phrase—unusual to you, that is. How about one used earlier here: “what is correct per that system of conventions”; many nonnative speakers readily add “as” before “per.” That’s how we speak, don’t we? So let’s go ahead make that change here, not once, but in all the occurrences the author has used “per.” Enter again the scholarly copy editor’s thought process: “if an author who has written such excellent English has consistently used ‘per’ and not ‘as per,’ then probably I am missing something here; let me check.” And the dictionary indicates that “per” is indeed valid and acceptable.

This aforementioned approach removes the subjective element in copy editing and makes it a transparent, verifiable process. The process requires application of grammar and usage rules; an understanding of native speaker habits and conventions, particularly so if you are handling a humanities copy edit; knowledge of styles and typesetting conventions; recommendations of the style manual to be used; any overriding house styles; and last but not the least an author’s own consistent and reasonable preference that no publisher would wish to overrule. Copy editors carefully analyze the interplay between these various parameters and weigh each against the other and make tenable, defensible decisions per the rules laid down by the publisher and generic copy edit principles. In this way, a copy editor very often thinks and functions like a lawyer: how am I going to justify this decision of mine on the basis of the rules of the game? Indeed, given the number of often conflicting stakeholders copy editors need to satisfy—the typesetter, the publisher, the author, the reader—they cannot afford to be any other than deadly scholarly and rule based!

To sum, I have briefly summarized what I think is the single most important skill of a copy editor, over and above all the knowledge of grammar, usage, and style: the desire to prove the objective validity of each and every edit made. Good copy editors don’t take liberties with the author. They feel obliged to only make interventions that they know can be proved should they be questioned, on the basis of applicable reference resources; the same obligation stands for cases where they have chosen not to intervene as well. Such a copy editor is what I would like to call a scholarly copy editor. They are academic in approach, are meticulous in their method of working, base their decisions on valid reference sources, and are consistent in the way they think. Such copy editors add value to an author’s work and are worthy of a publisher’s trust.

So happy copy editing, dear scholarly copy editors!

Suraj Mylapore is an editorial and content professional with more than 15 years' experience in copyediting, content development, and allied services. He has experience in setting editorial and content teams up and has worked with prestigious academic publishers based in the United States and the United Kingdom. Suraj holds a master's in physics from the University of Madras.

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