Why I love copy editors

When I first left university I worked briefly for an investment bank. The phrase 'fish out of water' doesn't cover just how unsuited I was to this job, to that whole world. But I did learn some useful skills. One thing that the bank took very seriously, oddly, was the written word. Documents and letters were always checked again and again.

One day I was responsible for a letter to a client called Angus. The letter was, as always, checked by a number of senior people before it went out. But despite all that no-one noticed that the letter was addressed to 'Dear Anus.' The spell check didn't pick that up because 'anus' is a word.

Of course, Freud did have a hand in this. The client was a horrible man and we all secretly wished to insult him. But, for me, the incident has stayed in my head mainly because it demonstrated how a number of well educated people can look at a document carefully, even a short document, and fail to notice a significant mistake.

This experience came back to me recently when my memoir went off to be copy edited. I was pretty confident that not many issues would be raised. I've checked the book many times and a friend who used to work in publishing has also read it and picked up lots of minor mistakes. All done, I thought.

But I'd forgotten that lesson I learnt years ago. The copy editor came back with twelve pages of notes. They were all minor but also important. I really enjoyed going through those notes because they taught me many things I didn't know or had forgotten. Copy editors are amazing people. They know so much about language.

They can explain to you exactly whether it should be 'which' or 'that.' They know when Mum should have a capital letter and when it shouldn't. They sort out your en dashes and your em dashes. They make a decision about whether it is going to be 'ize' or 'ise' and standardise the document.

They raise issues such as - you say you travelled from Indonesia to Bali but Bali is part of Indonesia. Dead right. It should be Java to Bali. On one page you say that something was one hundred yards away but in the chapter before you say that something else was one hundred metres away. Do you want to go metric or imperial?

I have to say I love all this and I'm really impressed by it. I suppose I enjoy it so much because, as a word nerd, I don't often have the chance to spend time with people who are even more word nerdy than me. I also want my text to be as near perfect as can be.

And all this happens before we get onto the proof reading which is the last and final check. Again I'm thinking - oh the proof reader won't find anything much. But I'm probably about to be surprised again. That lesson I learnt so many years ago is one that none of us ever quite learn, I think.

Having said all that, I better check through this now and get rid of all the mistakes. Except I won't be able to, will I? Because I don't have that vital distance that enable the copy editor and the proof reader to do their job so well.

There's a Russian phrase I have always loved - no-one lies like an eye witness. Often it is true that the person standing closest sees least clearly.

(This photo is the first of the images in my book).


Nick Green said…
My CV once contained the line, 'I am an excellent poofreader.'
Nick Green said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
JO said…
Oh yes - where would we be without them. In my former life I had to write reports for courts - and one, about a little boy, insisted his name was phallus and not Phillip ... and yes, I think I spotted them all before it went before a judge!
Ah, the which/that thing. My last (excellent) copy editor has me paranoid about it, because she worked in the US for a while. And they hate the use of 'which' where we are quite happy with it here. They have very specific rules - but it has infected us via editors. If you don't believe me, check out a few UK classics and note that Stevenson, Dickens, Trollope and the like routinely use 'which' where most copy editors would now quite definitely be substituting 'that'. I find it worrying that our writing style can be so influenced by the dictates of foreign grammarians. In fact I got away with leaving most of my 'whiches' in The Physic Garden even where I knew they pained the editor a bit, because we all realised that if this was meant to be written in the voice of an eighteenth century man, he wouldn't have been very keen on 'that' at all. (There's an argument to be made about linguistic change, I know, but these kind of prescriptions do tend to damage literary style.) Otherwise I agree about the usefulness of editing. The old Word spellcheck routinely changed Angus into Anus. (Maybe it still does!) I know because I had a radio play where one of the characters was called Angus and running it through the spellcheck caused some hilarious suggestions.
Nick Green said…
Lord knows what they would have made of Phillip K Dick.
Nick Green said…
The final straw was the retitling of Eva Ibbotson's book as 'That That?'
Chris Longmuir said…
I too know the Anus/Angus thing because I used to work for Angus Council and was responsible for writing instruction manuals, guidance and interpretation of the law. Our typing pool didn't think that part of their job was proofreading, so it all came back to me. One thing it did give me was a keen eye for typos for which I will be eternally grateful.
Mari Biella said…
Oh, the which/that thing drives me absolutely insane. It's one of those linguistic minefields that (which?) I've never been able to navigate. This is why a good editor is essential!
Fran B said…
Courtesy of early computer spellchecks, I once sent an important funding-related letter with the inside address:
The Carnegie Ukulele Trust

The person who replied had a sense of humour and commented that the Trust had not yet branched out into specifically supporting ukulele-players but they would give it some thought when compiling their next set of quinquennial priorities.

And we still got our funding from the Carnegie UK Trust for that year.
Ann Turnbull said…
Yes, it's so important to get everything checked. I am mystified by en and em dashes and don't know how to change them even if they are wrong. And I've always used 'which' or 'that' as the spirit moved me - didn't know there were rules, although I sometimes feel one or the other sounds better.
Alice, I didn't notice any typos in your post on a quick read through BUT you forgot to put your name at the top!
Lydia Bennet said…
yes Alice, enjoyable blog, but you did forget your name at the top! :) but very true and it is fascinating to dally in the word-nerd's world - i have found myself doing that far more in formatting ebooks, as you get enmeshed in en and em dashes and similar critters, pilcrows, etc.
Alice said…
Thanks for the comments. Sorry I forgot to put my name at the top. I'll remember that next time. I am glad others have wrestled with these issues / been interested by them. I used to be part of a Writers' Group which I absolutely loved. That group was in Brussels and, since I moved back to the UK, I can't go anymore. I still miss those people - particularly two guys referred to as 'The Dept of Pedantism' who always sat at the end of the table picking up on every tiny mistake.

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