I love copyeditors. I just wish they could go further.
Over the years, the many copyeditors I’ve worked with have flagged my embarrassing misspellings, taught me obscure grammar rules, and saved me from looking stupid. We bond over our Oxford commas. And I pride myself on creating “clean” prose — drafts that are ready for copyedit and don’t have a lot of errors.
There were quite a few good ones at Forrester. I liked to tweak them. About 15 years ago I drove one to the dictionary to look up “portmanteau,” a word I’d used to refer to a dumb technology product that tried to do two things at once. “Not familiar with that word?” I asked with a smirk. “Oh, sure I am,” she said. “I’m just checking if the plural ends in “s” or “x.”
Copyeditors can ruin prose. On Outside In, a book I edited and shepherded through the publishing process, the publisher’s copyeditor made a huge number of seemingly irrelevant changes that would have messed up the text. (Do you really have to hyphenate “customer-experience design”?) I fled to the arms of Merlina, a Forrester copyeditor I’d learned to trust completely. “Is this right?” I asked. She reviewed the manuscript and told me to reject most of the changes. “She’s following rules that were obsolete 15 years ago,” Merlina told me. And we won. Copyeditors are like lawyers. You want one to tell you the rules, and sometimes you need to hire your own to fight to preserve your integrity.
Rules do change. The Washington Post’s Bill Walsh, author of the winsomely named The Elephants of Style, just decided to accept email (no hyphen), Walmart (no hyphen), website (no space), and mic (as in “drop the”). Welcome to the twenty-first century, Bill.
Here’s the problem, though. Passive voice is not ungrammatical. Weasel words are perfectly good words. Jargon offends the reader, but isn’t incorrect English. And a copyeditor will happily (or sometimes, sadly) verify the grammatical correctness of a long sentence or paragraph that you should have just deleted.
Who’s Whose job is it to fix those?
Your content editor, if you have one, should help you with that. You ought to have a voice in your own head telling you when you’ve committed bullshit. And if you get along well with your copyeditor, you can tell them to help you with the remaining bad prose that slips through, even if it’s correct English. (If you’re having problems with the “them” in that sentence, I’ll point out that Bill Walsh also just approved the singular “they.”)
Once our collaborators and editors are working together to purge words that don’t add meaning, our readers will be better off. We’ll still need copyeditors (God knows I do). But our copyeditors will be a lot happier when they’re finding flaws in prose that’s doing its job efficiently instead of stinking up the joint.
P.S. Go ahead, try to argue with me about whether it’s “copy editor” or “copyeditor.” Just try.