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What Makes a Good Copy Editor?

“[The copy editor’s] first goal isn’t to slash and burn [his/her] way through a document in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. [The copy editor’s] first goal is merely to do no harm.” –Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor

Anyone can call themselves a copy editor. There is no test to take, no certification or degree required (for freelancers, anyway). But, just like with any service provider, not all copy editors are created equally. This is not to say that differences are bad. Different writers will connect with different editors on different levels for different reasons. Variety and choice are good things. Whether or not an editor is “good” depends on many factors beyond subject matter expertise, skill, and experience.

Subject Matter Expertise – By this, I mean the editor’s ability to do the job. Does the editor know what she’s doing? An editor should have excellent grammar skills and have in-depth knowledge of at least one of the top styles (Chicago, AP, MLA, etc.). SME could also refer to an editor’s knowledge of the class (fiction vs. nonfiction), genre (romance, biography, etc.), and subject.

Skill – Copy editors have access to a great deal of information and numerous resources, and they must have the appropriate skill for putting these assets to use.

Experience – Nothing can take the place of experience. While this is not to say that someone new to editing can’t do a great job, an experienced editor will likely be faster, more confident, and less apt to make mistakes.

A good editor should also exhibit a variety of key soft skills, or personal attributes. Among them are flexibility, professionalism, communication skills, teamwork skills, a strong work ethic, decisiveness, attention to detail, and self-control.

Flexibility – Flexibility could refer to many things, but in this case I mean the editor’s willingness to stray from the rules of a particular style to better serve the message. While grammar rules are generally unbending, style rules can be nuanced when necessary. As Carol Fisher Saller says in The Subversive Copy Editor, “If style rules were universal and immutable, there would be no need for different style guides and dictionaries.” The Chicago Manual of Style even stated way back in 1906 (the first edition), “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Professionalism – An editor who is down-to-earth with a great sense of humor is nice, but those qualities cannot take the place of professionalism in how she communicates and otherwise conducts business. Professionalism means being succinct in communications, being prompt in responses, meeting deadlines, and speaking intelligently. Indicators of poor professionalism are sloppy e-mails (like using texting abbreviations, which is just plain lazy), slow responses to questions, and improper language.

Communication Skills – Besides professionalism in communication, an editor needs to be able to speak clearly and needs to welcome the open, honest exchange of ideas. Feedback that is cryptic or otherwise difficult to understand doesn’t do any good. And an unwillingness to listen to the writer’s ideas and discuss them with honesty and respect is simply unacceptable.

Teamwork Skills – This team is made up of the writer, the editor, and the silent partner – the reader. A top-notch editor will note the writer’s goals and preferences and keep them in mind at all times, working to give the writer what he wants while also ensuring that readers get what they need. Teamwork means working with the writer, not against him.

Work Ethic – A strong work ethic means giving all the necessary time and attention to do the best job possible. It’s as simple as that.

Decisiveness – No one needs a wishy-washy editor. Opinions, when given constructively and respectfully, are good and necessary; otherwise, what’s the point? This is not to say that editors have to rule with an iron fist (see teamwork skills above), but a good editor will trust her instincts when something doesn’t feel right and will call it to the writer’s attention. Occasional uncertainty is okay, but overall confidence and decisiveness are indispensable.

Attention to Detail – It probably goes without saying that an editor must have good attention to detail. Every bit of the written work has to be scrutinized for errors and inconsistencies. Nothing shy of intense analysis will do.

Self-Control – Consider the idea in the opening quotation that an editor should “do no harm.” A copy editor’s job is to fix and enhance, meaning to find errors and possible issues and point them out to the writer. It’s easy, and very tempting, to go overboard with these responsibilities and start changing things unnecessarily or trying to push the writer in new, unwanted directions. Editors are, by nature, control freaks, and good editors turn that need for control inward to keep themselves in line and stay focused on the writer’s goals.

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