An American Editor

May 19, 2014

The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting

Teaching the Art of Copyediting

by Erin Brenner

A while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He said:

Editing is…a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught.…But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

I agree that editing is a craft, one that editors continue to learn throughout their careers. And while telling an adjective from an adverb is useful, it’s just the beginning of learning copyediting.

Editing courses, Adin says, teach only the mechanics of copyediting because that’s all they can teach. By “mechanics,” he means “the things that are applied by rule [or] rote,” he told me in an email.

But you can’t teach students how to “reconstruct a sentence so that it is clear and accurately portrays the message,” Adin continued.

“It is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor,” Adin had written in his blog post. “If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.”

Let’s look at these two ideas separately.

Teaching More Than Editing Mechanics

My own definitions of editing come from The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. Einsohn breaks down the task of copyediting into several parts, including:

  • Mechanical editing: making a manuscript conform to a house style, including correcting for such items as spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, punctuation, treatment of numbers, and so on.
  • Language editing: correcting or querying the author on errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction.
  • Content editing: correcting or querying the author on errors of internal consistency, content discrepancies, and structural and organizational problems.

Adin and I have essentially the same definition of mechanics, then. Editing a weak sentence into something clear and accurate would seem like language editing to me; in some instances, it might be content editing. Both are teachable, though, and deconstructing sentences and paragraphs is an excellent way to do so.

Break that sentence into its parts and see how it works. What happens when you move modifying phrases around? Does a sentence sound stronger with an important phrase at the beginning or end? These are places of power in a sentence, and a copyeditor can learn to use those places wisely.

Maybe word choice is the problem. Has the author chosen a word that’s precise enough to carry the meaning? Copyeditors should be alert to connotation and denotation of words.

Another key to finding clarity in sentences is understanding rhythm and how that’s achieved. An awkward rhythm can distract readers from the message.

All of these things and more can be explained and, more importantly, practiced. A recent lesson for my Copyediting II students included an exercise in coordinating and subordinating ideas in sentences and paragraphs. My job is to judge how well they’ve done that based on the original meaning of the text and to guide them to better decisions when necessary.

A lot of language editing can be taught by teaching writing style. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas S. Kane broadly defines style as “the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements.” What kind of choices are we talking about? Things such as:

  • Diction
  • Verb choice
  • Passive vs. active voice
  • Coordination and subordination of ideas
  • Use of negatives
  • Variety in words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure
  • Redundancy

In addition, copyeditors can learn how to create transitions between sentences and paragraphs and how to organize words in a sentence to better emphasize the main idea. All of these items can be taught and practiced.

Of course, a writing style is a complex thing and not always easy to identify minutely, but we can identify certain characteristics of style and note when something doesn’t fit. When you can identify the problem, you can fix it.

Why Aren’t There More Great Editors?

If teaching copyediting is possible, then, how come there aren’t more great editors? Many reasons, including:

  • Not all copyediting training is created equal. Some materials, no matter what kind you use, are simply better than others. In part, you’re only as good as your training.
  • Not all copyeditors are created equal. Like any other career, copyediting demands certain abilities, such as attention to detail. Some people are simply better at noticing details. Others are good at seeing the big picture. We all have innate abilities that suit us to certain kinds of work.
  • If more people were great, who would be average? Those at the top of their industry are just that: the top. The exceptions, not the rule. Most folks are average, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, though, we don’t really know how many copyeditors are great. As Adin has pointed out, we lack a national organization in the United States that measures how good a copyeditor is. How can we know how many great copyeditors labor in obscurity? We may bemoan the quality of the published word, but can we lay all the blame on copyeditors and ignore writers’ skills, the time given to edit, or any other variable in the publishing process?

I, too, would like to see a national organization that sets a standard for editing, recognizes those editors that achieve it, and educates the world about the importance of those standards. Doing so would also indicate that we think copyediting can be taught.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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