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What people should know - but don't - about copy editors

What people should know – but don’t – about copy editors

By September 28, 2015 News No Comments

It’s an odd job but it has one central point that is, frankly, sacred. (Image:

Most people don’t know what I do. Most people don’t know that I exist. There are a lot of different varieties of me. I call myself a proofreader. If I’m feeling fancy, on a good day, I might say I’m an editor. At the top of that particular tree is something called a sub-editor, or copy editor for you Americans. You read our words every day and you don’t even know it. We’re creative but not originally so. We’re trusted to translate what we think authors and journalists are trying to tell you. Every single word you’ve ever read – in a book, magazine, online article, newspaper, brochure, website, menu, email newsletter, anything with letters – has been through our brain filter. But yet, we don’t talk about it or, ironically, write about it so as my dear friend DC as me to write this article I shrank from attention and said I’d give it some thought. Then I Googled what I do. Of course, the reliable old Guardian and the BBC were there to guide me on how to tell you what this job really is. I hope at least some of this will convey that it’s a bit of a weird job, but one which I love doing.

Rare is the plain old proofread. That’s the one where, probably due to a combination of time, cost and perhaps even, gasp, a picky or controlling client you’re only doing the cosmetic, superficial things: fix the spelling, make sure the punctuation is in the right place. Real copy or sub-editing has grander aims than that. I’ve never asked a writer what they think about it, whether they are resentful that much of their copy could potentially be changed. Or whether it’s just part of being a journalist: that your stuff is always getting messed with. I’ve been edited many times, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. Most of what I do goes beyond proofreading, which I’ve been doing now for 15 years. I used to work for a magazine and while my title was editorial assistant the truth is that I wasn’t deserving of that job title for many years. I was an office manager who, due to a natural, unexpected, accidental and entirely untrained aptitude, was taught how to check that the articles didn’t have big mistakes in them. I learned so much from the editor over my 8 years there, but I never felt like a real editor myself. I’ve since built a decent little business, though I am earning slightly less than I did as an office manager. I’m happier, for certain, and work from home, which I love (I get to listen to music all day and no boss is looking over my shoulder) but, as you may imagine, requires a very high level of discipline.

It’s hard to explain exactly how I do my job. I just know how things are supposed to go. What words aren’t right, what instead should be included, how to clarify points and improve the flow of copy. I learned by doing. I don’t recommend this to any young person reading this. I got lucky. I learned as the (largely badly written and unedited) internet was gaining in power and influence and got in just under the wire. Without sounding like an idiot, I hope, I think I have a bit of a natural gift for writing and a ridiculously obsessive eye for detail that extends to every facet of my life (I annoy friends/family by being unable to shut up about errors I find), which every so often gets disrupted out of its pattern of student work and current clients, and that happened this past week during some work for a new one, a big publishing house with most of the famous airlines on its books.

The job was to sub a 12-page travel magazine on the best things to do in Europe. You would be shocked at two things about this job:

1. How incredibly hard it is to get 5 sets of information into a small space.

2. How much of that information (both for the supplement and for the website, which had different formatting rules) is wrong. I don’t mean obviously wrong – that would be easy to fix – but how much is sneakily wrong. The odd letter, missing word, slightly inaccurate URL slug (that’s the bit that comes after .com) or confusing premise.

The tightrope walk of getting carefully written information into a set space has a huge amount of complex moving parts. In this case, it was all made harder by the fact that the writers had been commissioned to do these articles having been told that the supplement was going to be 20 pages. In the articles came, and then it was reduced to 12. So, breathe in everyone. It’s going to be a tight squeeze. Each entry was approximately 1/3 too long as it had to end up being. And it’s in what information you excise that the art of editing lives. Too much and it won’t make sense. Too little and it won’t fit. The wrong excised word and you might cut out something crucially important to the reader’s understanding of what you’re saying.

Just changing one single letter could push a line of text off the page and lead to revisions all over. The on-page complexity, I guarantee you, is something that nobody ever thinks of when they pick up a newspaper or magazine. Few know about the level of madness, blood, sweat and tears that goes into making each page look perfect.

It’s an odd job but it has one central point that is, frankly, sacred. Copy-editing must never change the meaning of the original information. In fact, the whole point is to keep the author’s original idea, just find a way to phrase it better. Especially with news (which is not what I do but I know how it works due to a brilliant week I spent at The Guardian), you absolutely must retain the voice of the author and the publication. The *whole* point is not to change the content: the shaping, the rewriting, the editing must only clarify the points. The editor must never alter the meaning and idea. In a way, editing is all cosmetic. You clarify, you made an unclear point clearer – but the point must be visible and intact in the finished piece.

– Liz Tray is a copy editor and proofreader living in London. Learn more about her work at and follow her on Twitter @liztray.