To Whom Must the Copy Editor Be Loyal?

In most jobs, it’s pretty easy to figure out where your loyalties lie. Follow the money, as they say, right? Whoever pays the bill deserves the loyalty.

But my question is a trick question (come on, copy editors don’t usually get to have all that much fun!).

Just so you know, I’ve been copyediting for a long time (yes, per Chicago Manual of Style, the verb is copyedit and the noun is copy editor. Go figure.)

Copy editors are those moss-covered, hunchback nerds who doggedly pursue perfection in spelling, grammar, style, consistency, logic, and understandable sentences. (Here’s an actual challenge from my archives: In actuality, the future possibility that a reaction to this book is rendered will be evidence enough.)

In my book editing work, I also do what a lot of manuscript editors do—reorganizing the structure and fact checking. (For example, did you know that, in British train jargon, it’s a goods wagon that carries the freight? Or that Swanson first produced TV dinners in 1953? Or that the Sahel Zone is the savanna that lies directly south of the Sahara Desert? What’s that you say? Enough already? Okay.)

Loyalty to the Reader?

So, here’s the answer to our loyalty question: A copy editor may be paid by the author or the publisher, but her loyalty, dear Reader, must be to you!

Yes. The reader is what makes the bottom line happy … the reader is the source of the ultimate revenue that supports both publisher and writer (not to mention the lowly copy editor). If readers (and the all-important and influential reviewers) don’t like/understand/enjoy the book, it’ won’t make money!

How about Loyalty to the Writer?

Well, okay. I admit, we do owe a little loyalty to the writer. More than a little. Lots. To a writer, every word is sacred. Every sentence is a masterpiece. (Well, maybe it isn’t … but don’t tell him!) A copy editor’s job is to help the writer tell his story well in his own voice. I used to work with an editing colleague who would rip each new job apart with disdain and triumphantly put it back together in her own voice and style. She could never understand why her authors didn’t like her “improvements”!

This comment from an author is what we like to hear: “You could have just edited the work and taken your check. You didn’t. You coaxed the final product out of me in a way that said, ‘I want this to be a good piece.’”

Loyalty to the Reader and Author = Loyalty to the Publisher

It’s that simple. If we do our jobs well enough to satisfy the reader and the author, the publisher will be happy!

Wait a Minute—How About a Copy Editor’s Loyalty to Herself?

As copy editors, we have to know all the rules. We have to know when to apply them and when to bend them. We have to be able to morph ourselves into an author’s persona so that we edit in her own voice. We have to be willing to learn about new ideas—as well as old ones—so our work will be sincere and accurate.

Copy editors can have great influence over a document, but her work usually shows up to readers as the work of the author! Sometimes we are acknowledged in print by an appreciative author, but, more often, we’re not. I don’t care, though—it’s the ride I enjoy! As soon as I finish an assignment (great or dreadful), I can’t wait to see the next one. What will I learn this time? How will I be able to help?

If you’re a copy editor, how do you engage with your authors?
If you’re a writer who has worked with a copy editor … how’s that working out for you?

In her professional life, Jan Howarth edits books in a multitude of genres and writes all manner of business documentation. In her personal life, “Jannie” is a wife, a mom, and a grandmother who loves studying history and looking forward to the future.

2 thoughts on “To Whom Must the Copy Editor Be Loyal?

  1. Jan, great post. I have tremendous respect for copy editors, as my mechanics are not as strong as they should be at times, I have worked with editors much like your former colleague, so I am also wary. I think working with a copy editor is like any business relationship, it is crucial to work with someone you respect and who respects you and your work.

  2. Thanks, Lee. My big problem is that editors (like me!) are usually not so great at editing their own copy! Very scary sometimes … ;-)

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