When I graduated with my degree in journalism 21 years ago, I knew just what I wanted to do — become a copyeditor. Of course, that’s when newsrooms were still bustling places with fully staffed copydesks — the landscape has change radically in two decades. At my interview for my first copyeditor role, my boss queried me with some suspicion: “Some copyeditors take the position only with aspirations of becoming reporters.” Little did he know the depth of my introversion and preference for doing my work behind the scenes. I was afraid of sounding stupid when I interviewed people and of putting my writing out so publicly. Not only that, I liked getting bogged down in the minutiae of AP Style (perhaps known best for its eschewal of the Oxford comma: forgive me) and fact checking. Reporting, no thank you.
Today, as an editor for a pair of business and manufacturing publications covering all of Northeast Wisconsin, I’ve overcome my fear of sounding foolish in interviews, and I do it all: writing, occasional (amateurish) photography and, yes, copyediting. I feel more fulfilled now that I’ve overcome fears and broadened my skill set, but copyediting remains my favorite task. I still like the minutiae. Finding and correcting errors is gratifying, and I believe in the power of the copyediting process to elevate my work and that of others.
A lot of what we do at the Fox Cities Book Festival is focused on reading and a love of books, but it’s also about helping writers improve their craft (check out our 2021 festival schedule here and look for the events labeled “Craft Presentations”).
With that, here are some tips from a copyeditor.
- Choose precise language. Stephen King has a well-known quote: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Many writers, including Hemingway, loathe adverbs. It’s a good adage to keep in mind. While you may not be able to expunge all adverbs from your writing, use them sparingly (oops — there I go using an adverb). Also, avoid clichés and useless words and phrases such as really, very and currently. Go over your writing when you’re finished and check for ways to tighten it. Don’t use 10 words where five will do. Vary word choice.
- Use active voice. It’s a lesson I learned in high school, and it’s stayed with me. Active voice reads more fluidly and is easier to comprehend.
- Let it marinate. Whether I’m writing for my personal blog or a cover story for one of our publications at work, after I finish a piece, I like to let it marinate before publishing it or sending it on for editing. That means sitting with what I’ve created overnight or even longer and returning to see if I still like what I’ve written or if I could improve it. I almost always find something I could do better.
- Get another set of eyes on your work. It’s critical to have at least one other person review your work. In my work, we have a small team, and just two of us make up the editorial team. My counterpart and I rely on each other for editing. Is that what you meant to say? Did you spell that person’s name correctly? Plus, catching all the typos and missed words. Perhaps the most important person in our editing process is our freelance copyeditor. By the time my colleague and I have gotten through producing a magazine, we’ve read each story at least five times, and our minds fill in the blanks. We rely on our copyeditor’s fresh eyes to catch what we miss. A caveat with copyediting: The process can introduce unintentional new errors, so it’s a good idea to make note of what gets changed to make sure the edits go through correctly before going live with the final iteration.
- Don’t gild the lily. Editing and copyediting are vital, but it’s also important not to get too caught up in perfecting. I’ve made and let through more mistakes than I’d care to admit, but I’m always learning and improving, and that’s the beauty and joy of writing.
~ By Jessica Thiel, Fox Cities Book Festival board member