The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 6, 2016

How Copyeditors Crack [Themselves] Up

Filed under: punctuation,shop talk — amba12 @ 12:47 pm

I had just finished a science book job with lots of endnotes, two or three or more per text page in places, almost all of them referring to scientific journal articles with long, complex titles and subtitles, full of technical terms and sprinkled with Greek letters. They were in bibliography style—lead author’s last name first, periods separating the infobits—and needed reformatting into note style. And they were unnumbered notes, so the key phrases that anchored them had to be located in the text; modified if they were too long, short, or generic; and revised if the text had been revised. At midnight the notes seemed neverending, as if every time I finished a page two more popped up, like sharks’ teeth. At 12:30, unbelievably, the last one came in sight. Then came the proofreading in Final to clean up the bits of stray punctuation that get stranded in strange places when you’re moving things around. You can’t see them all among the blue and red of Track Changes.

It was the kind of work that demands the utmost in self-restraint, patience, and attention. You have to sit. You have to sit still, with your eyes fixed on a screen, for hours at a time. You cannot allow your mind or body to wander or you’ll miss stuff. Yes, I do have the Moon in Virgo but this is not my favorite part of copyediting. What really interests me is grammar and diction, the refinement of expression (i.e. I’m really an editor, not a copyeditor, but I don’t want the responsibility of being an editor—the part that’s a euphemism for “ghost writer”). The next morning I did my “sweeps”—going through the manuscript doing a “Find” on every digit from 0 through 9 to make sure I’ve treated numbers (and anything else in question) consistently. (How did we do this before computers?) Then I organized the stylesheet, under time pressure since the job was a day late.

After it was all in, I kicked back and, in the mindless way you do while decompressing, read the first thing in front of me, which happened to be my own stylesheet.

I was appalled.

  • Spell out 1–99, with exceptions:
    • dollar amounts: $1, $
    • millions, billions: 12 million, 3 billion,
    • percentages: numeral with the word “percent” (“11 percent,” “100 percent”

If you’re a copyeditor (or a copy editor) you will see that I went straight to hell in exactly the ways it was so important to stay buttoned up on the job. Nobody cares about this stuff on the Internet anymore, as long as readers can understand what’s being said (for science nerds only: I just read a WIRED article on the CRISPR-CAS patent dispute that misspelled the name of Jennifer “Dounda”), but if this incriminating document ever came to the attention of a copyediting department, especially someplace supercilious* like the University of Chicago Press (where an editor once made me copyedit my own résumé, then still didn’t hire me), I’d be drummed out of the profession.

I sent an embarrassed apology to the receiving editor, only to embarrass myself further:

The stylesheet itself needed copyediting, but I didn’t take the time. . . .

It’s just littered of unclosed parentheses and quote marks, the occasional missing example, etc. . . .

“littered of”?! How copyeditors crack up. ;)

(In my lurching fatigue I’d gotten only halfway through changing “full of” to “littered with.”)

Reviewing this as I walked through the park to karate class to get the kinks out, I could not stop laughing.

 

*The word “supercilious” derives from the Latin for “raised eyebrow.”

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1 Comment »

  1. I fear the responsibility of copyediting more than the responsibility of editing/ghost writing (and love your description of the latter). I just st can’t trust myself with all those pesky details.

    My emails are littered with typos.

    Comment by Alison — January 6, 2016 @ 11:04 pm | Reply


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