A Million-Dollar Word Key to the Art of Copyediting


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Mary Nor­ris, a query proof­reader at The New Yorker mag­a­zine, writes in the Feb­ru­ary 23, 2015, issue:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultra­crep­i­date.” So much of copy edit­ing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writ­ers might think we’re apply­ing rules and stick­ing it to their prose in order to make it fit some stan­dard, but just as often we’re back­ing off, mak­ing excep­tions, or at least try­ing to find a bal­ance between doing too much and doing too lit­tle. A lot of the deci­sions you have to make as a copy edi­tor are sub­jec­tive. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s inter­pre­tive, not mechanical.…

This is so true! As I copy­edit someone’s work, I con­sider my job, first and fore­most, not to be mak­ing all gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion rigidly cor­rect. In the first place, how — or whether — punc­tu­a­tion is used is, as Nor­ris states, inter­pre­tive, so I’m always striv­ing to under­stand what the author wants read­ers to under­stand. If an author’s comma will lead read­ers to under­stand a sen­tence dif­fer­ently than what I believe the author intends, it’s my job to remove that comma — even if the author really likes that comma! If I’m not sure what the author intends in a sen­tence, it’s my job to query him or her and double-check.

Sec­ondly, regard­ing gram­mar, though I think it’s fair to say the rules are more rigid than with punc­tu­a­tion, it’s my job as the copy edi­tor you hired to grasp the tone or “voice” you, the author, wish to use: for­mal, con­ver­sa­tional, aca­d­e­mic, slang? If the tone calls for break­ing gram­mar rules, it’s my job as copy edi­tor to actu­ally help you do so — per­haps by chang­ing “do not” to “don’t” for more natural-sounding dia­logue, or chop­ping a sen­tence into frag­ments, or ignor­ing what in another con­text might be exces­sive wordiness.

Copy­edit­ing is, if not more art than sci­ence, at least a bal­ance of the two. And all the while, an impor­tant part of my role is to not over­step my bounds, to not tres­pass on the author’s “turf” by mak­ing a sub­stan­tial change with­out con­sult­ing with him or her. Indeed, it is my pro­fes­sional duty not to ultra­crep­i­date!

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