Copy editing is not exactly a breeze; it takes more than simply knowing what “looks right.” I can say this with all truthfulness because I used to believe that my “looks right” decisions were enough to turn sloppy copy into something perfect. I was wrong.
So what does good copy editing take?
A Good Eye
Yes, I know I just dissed the whole “looks right” theory, but it is an important part of the whole. A copy editor needs to instinctively know what looks right and what doesn’t (or that which doesn’t, which sounds completely irritating but works for legalese).
Microsoft Word doesn’t help much when it comes to homophones, and will gladly skip by glaring errors like their vs. there, were vs. where, and set up vs. setup. As a copy editor, you need to know in advance which words you want to use and how to spell them. Buy the amazing Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Be sure to get the latest edition, because spellings change over the years. Take setup vs. set up: Set up is a transitive verb whereas setup is a noun — you need to know when and where to spell each one right.
This is probably the harder aspect of copy editing — while there are two main manuals of style to follow, many organizations create their own style guides. In order to do a good job, you need to know how an organization likes its ellipses or em dashes, or what its rules on capitalization are. Some style guides make me gasp in horror, but my lips are sealed. (Hint: You don’t lowercase someone’s name just because you hate him or her [yes, him or her — them is not a singular pronoun].) One of the differences I see most often between the CMoS and the Associated Press Stylebook is when using em dashes: The Chicago Manual of Style tells us not to put a space around the em dashes, while The AP Stylebook loves spaces. Another difference is when typing ellipses: The CMoS likes spacing out the dots in an ellipsis while the AP Stylebook doesn’t.
This is probably my biggest peeve, although back in the early days, I didn’t even realize I was committing this fatal sin. I learned it quickly enough when I took an editing test …. e.g. They had the best time of their life. WRONG! They had the best time of their lives.
Essentially, a copy editor has to constantly check the dictionary and style guide to make sure all the content follows the rules. That takes much more time than to simply read through something and decide that it “looks right.”
If you have the joy of finding a good copy editor, you have a veritable goldmine at your disposal … and this Irish copywriter/copy editor comes with her own pot of gold.