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.



  1. Thanks, Erin (and thank you too, Adin). I think we (I’m talking as a professional and teacher) can teach anything, but we can’t transfer experience.


    Comment by Antonio Martín — May 19, 2014 @ 9:54 am | Reply

  2. Great column, Erin. I do think you can teach all the rules. Even how to be a skeptical editor and how to smooth out sentences and transitions. What you can’t teach is a passion for editing. It’s that passion that makes the differences between OK and great.


    Comment by Teresa Schmedding — May 19, 2014 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Words Are My Business and commented:
    When I read this article at American Editor (Rich Adin) I was immediately struck with that deep innate recognition of myself as a editor. It is true, you can teach the mechanics of copyediting but the real sense of editing comes from knowledge, experience, and instinct. I was an editor at the very time I began to learn how to write and compose sentences – it was instinctual.


    Comment by Words Are My Business — May 26, 2014 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  4. Teresa, you’re right. You have to have passion, even an innate ability, to be a great editor. That said, greatness is only ever a small portion of everyone. You can teach someone to be a good editor; only they can push themselves up to greatness.

    Thanks, Cindy, for your comments and republishing the post. Knowledge you can teach. Experience you can given opportunities for (and feedback about, in the form of mentoring). Instinct can’t be taught or given; it must come from within.


    Comment by ErinB — June 10, 2014 @ 9:12 am | Reply

  5. […] editor. (For my view, see Is Editing Teachable?; for a contrary view, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting; also worth reading are the comments to these essays.) Ruth Thaler-Carter wrote a while back about […]


    Pingback by What Should Editors Read? | An American Editor — September 3, 2014 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  6. I think you can teach copyediting! Even good, subtle copyediting. But it would be a lot of work to develop that coursework and the practice material. It would have to be a very lab-heavy course, with tons of real-world examples (or close to real-world examples). And that’s very labor-intensive for the instructor. I think most instructors would have difficulty creating that.

    It’s one reason I’m so bummed that my current employer doesn’t have internships anymore (and never did have proper internships for copyediting). I think hands-on work is the only way to learn this sort of stuff.


    Comment by Talley Sue Hohlfeld — August 7, 2015 @ 11:11 am | Reply

    • There are programs out there already that have done a lot of the work of creating courses and practice materials. I teach in UC San Diego’s program, which is a mature program. I had to create my online courses, but I was given a list of goals and texts, as well as a syllabus to start from. Creating the exercises and tests was the hardest part, and I’m constantly tweaking, fixing, and updating. Grading takes the most time, something students learn slowly, but it takes time because of the level of feedback I give. I’ve been told that the feedback I give is very helpful.


      Comment by erinbrenner — August 10, 2015 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  7. It’s a great article. Lot of practical insights about teaching copyediting. Definitely there are some unreachable parts in copyediting, one being the so-called “editorial judgement”. There is no way one can teach this element to anyone but it is of supreme importance as far as copyediting is concerned. Thanks.


    Comment by Debashis Barah — January 19, 2018 @ 10:51 am | Reply

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