Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes

Advocate. Prose custodian. Adjunct to the life of the mind. A person in my role wears many hats—and keeps many secrets.
January 20, 2023
The World Through a Copyeditor’s Eyes

That thing you just said: I was editing it in my head as you spoke. And that email you sent me earlier today: I edited that, too. Sorry, I don’t think less of you. It’s because I’m a copyeditor. My mind just sort of does it automatically. PowerPoint slides, interstate billboards, restaurant menus, church bulletins: We live in a world of typos, and it’s my job to see them. The measure of a book’s quality, they say, lies in what’s left on the cutting-room floor. Copyeditors are the ones employed to do the cutting.

In general, there are four types of editing in the book world. Developmental editing takes place at the level of the big picture and organizing concepts. In line editing, an attentive editor will help a writer to say what they mean in a voice that best expresses the spirit of their ideas. Copyediting, my own domain, involves cleaving to the precepts of one style guide or another while making precise adjustments to word choice, order, rhythm, and so forth. And proofreading is a safari hunt for any last remaining typos and solecisms.

Because of the apparent overlap between the work of copyediting and line editing, some people conflate them, but those with correct opinions see them as distinct. Developmental editing and line editing both take place early in a book’s development, and they are both messy and more involved. Copyediting and proofreading come into play nearer to the end: They are the finish carpentry of the publishing process. The house is already built; we copyeditors arrive when the tarp is still on the floor to make sure joints and seams are properly aligned, that corners are sharp, and that there are no devils hiding in the details.

I spent over a decade in copyediting, and before that I worked in-house at a publisher. I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of books in this state of rough completion before beginning my finishing work on them. And just as a carpenter walks into a finished house and immediately notices all the little corners that have been cut—sloppy trim work, exposed nail heads, gaps in joinery—my time in publishing has given me a sense for aspects of the book trade that might be invisible to readers who see only the finished products.

When I tell people I earn my living as a copyeditor, I am typically met with one of two responses: rapt admiration or an almost physical revulsion. The admirers tend to act as if I’ve done a truly noble thing—something they might do themselves, if they only had the courage. They are almost certainly picturing an idealized scene similar to the one I imagined when I first thought about becoming an editor: Reading beloved books all day, soaking up knowledge, getting lost in good prose, ridding the world of grammatical errors and sloppy arguments.

The reality is much duller. (I take no pleasure in saying this, but perpetuating romantic misapprehensions feels dishonest.) To frame it, I often suggest a loose metric: Add up all the books you’ve read and loved—the solitary treasures, the childhood favorites, the cherished books shared with your bosom friend. Now, add to all those beloved books all the books you’d like to read and are sure you’d love—the classics, the recommendations from trusted friends, the pile on your nightstand, the ones on your shelf you haven’t gotten to yet, and all the books you’ve been eyeing on your trips to the bookstore.

Consider all of these, dear friend—all the books you’ve loved and will love, all the brilliant works of literature and philosophy and history and poetry, all the unclassifiable eclectic works of genius, the underappreciated gems, your secret guilty pleasures, and even the entire world of popular middlebrow literature, the John Grishams and the Louis L’Amours.

All these volumes put together amount to the very crème de la crème of the crème de la crème, the one hundredth of one percent of books that should be considered good.

And the rest, it is my solemn duty to report, is bad.

In my decade-plus of full-time copyediting (I now edit for a magazine), nearly all the books I’ve worked on were unremarkable, and most have been or will be soon forgotten. I edited zero books that people will still be reading in one hundred years. That’s not to say they were all bad, even if most of them were; I edited plenty of good books. It’s just that, in the sad sweep of history, almost all the books ever written and that have yet to be written are mediocre, at best, and destined for few, if any, readers.

But copyeditors read them. It is our job to read them and to bear with them, to fix their shoddy grammar and flag their questionable assertions and spruce up their forgettable prose, and to do it day after day after day.

But how much can a copyeditor really do? I’ll tell you. Judging by another measure I give to my interested interlocutor—whose interest is by now quickly fading—books can be sorted into the following categories: There are terrible books, there are bad books, there are decent books, there are good books, and there are excellent books. A good copyeditor can move the book they’ve been assigned one rung up the quality ladder—at best. You could do more, but a publisher can’t pay you for the time it would take to move a book two rungs.

Given these hard commercial realities, novice copyeditors often need to be induced to give up their notion that every book needs to be perfect. I’ve seen more than one nearly catch fire with frustration and panic because their deadline is the next day, they’ve already spent double the allotted hours on the project, and they’ve edited 27 out of 384 pages. (I have, myself, nearly imploded more than once under similar conditions.)

Usually when a publisher has a stinker on their hands, they know it, and by the time it gets to the copyeditor, all the heavy lifting that’s going to get done has been done. They don’t want you to waste time futzing with it when it would be impossible to lift it a single rung. But even with a decent book, it’s a bad investment for the publisher to throw a ton of editing at it. Every book receives a finite allocation of resources to bring it to publication, and while I didn’t by any stretch of anyone’s imagination get rich copyediting, it’s an expensive thing to pay for.

So, bad books generally stay bad. As a copyeditor, you just have to clench your teeth through terrible argumentation and hold your breath through putrid prose, because you have eight hundred pages due before next Friday or you’ll have to put in weekend hours, and if you don’t meet this deadline it’ll be hell to pay for the next month and a half, because each deadline falls like a domino after the first one you miss.

It’s possible to become jaded. I’ve been tempted, not infrequently, to stop editing and go out in a blaze of glory, writing a comment in the margin of a terrible manuscript to the effect of, “AU: YOU ARE A COMPLETE IDIOT, PLEASE STOP WRITING BOOKS.” (Leaving the comma splice would show just how unhinged they had made me.)

I sublimate this impulse by instead writing snarky, exasperated queries, which I then revise into suitably anodyne requests for changes after I finish my edit. It’s cathartic to get the spleen out, but also dangerous, because you risk missing one before passing the manuscript back—or, God forbid, forgetting to check over them at all. But, so far as I know, I’ve never done that. The worst punch I’ve forgotten to pull was a note to myself that said, “Awkward, clean up.” To the author, this probably looked like a terse, semi-unprofessional comment. Better that than confronting them with something like, “Yuck. What a bunch of tired, flabby assertions,” or “This sentence spirals out of control and explodes in a gigantic fireball.”

But in the end, a copyeditor learns that a project is simply a project, neither a sacred trust to better the world nor a consecrated burden the publisher has placed on their shoulders to ensure the book is a masterpiece. A job is a job is a job. There are probably classic works of literature that a vigilant copyeditor could have still further improved; I’m glad they chose life instead.

But to return to the two reactions to my line of work I mentioned at the outset: The second one—the visceral revulsion at the idea of being a copyeditor—is far more common than the admiration. I don’t normally have to disabuse anyone of romantic notions of what it’s like to read for a living because they already regard the idea with horror. These people greet my disclosure with effortful politeness, then grow contemplative as they imagine the terrible monotony of my existence. Often their experience of the world has not supplied them with a meaningful distinction between “writer” and “editor,” so their memory defaults back to the better-understood first category. “How’s the writing going?” they later ask. “Good,” I say, and move on. Any vanity I’ve harbored about what I do evaporated long ago. There are more important things to worry about.

A copyeditor does not formally participate in the intellectual life. He or she is, rather, its adjunct and custodian. A good copyeditor therefore knows when to stop editing, has refined the skill of refraining from the conversation, and knows when not to get involved (which is almost always) in the ideas and the argument. I had been in the book business for a couple years before I realized that at many publishers, copyeditors work in the production department rather than editorial, and aspiring editors who are interested in vision and ideas and decision-making do well to avoid copyeditor positions.

Because when it comes down to it, a copyeditor is a journeyman, a trade worker. The proper domain of knowledge for a copyeditor is not a discipline, but the style guide. In most of American book publishing, that’s the Chicago Manual of Style. Though many copyeditors have some amount of intellectual expertise in a particular discipline, especially if they work on academic texts (as I do), in the end, the job of even a very sophisticated copyeditor is limited to the application of a set of compositional rules to a large body of words on a page, nothing more.

If I have felt stymied by the horizons of my trade, I have compensated by endlessly refining my knowledge of the deep, labyrinthine ways of the Chicago Manual of Style and jealously guarding the boundaries of my realm. The copyeditor’s world is a world of petty tyrannies. None shall question my dictates on the placement of commas relative to quotation marks, or my other dictates, which are similarly unquestionable. I was hired once to write a style guide for a magazine. I enshrined all my private preferences, the little mechanical details that take on outsize significance in the world of the copyeditor, with absolute authority—a law code for my own personal kingdom.

But while we copyeditors do not participate in the academic world or in intellectual life, we do listen to it very closely. At least I do. Being a copyeditor means locating yourself everywhere and nowhere, pressing your ear to the doors to a variety of academic disciplines, but not properly entering any of them.

A remarkable education is available to an attentive eavesdropper. While I value the training I received for my degrees, I got my real education copyediting. Not only did I read for a living, but my reading was enormously varied; I listened in on hundreds of conversations. All sorts of things floated into my ken, from some of the most wacko leftist quackery I’ve ever encountered to isolationist reactionary fundamentalism that would make your eyes bleed, and everything in between.

I read it all, for eight hours a day, fifty weeks a year, for twelve years. But not all of it made a claim on me. The great privilege and the great downfall of copyediting is that you’re not ultimately accountable for anything but the grammar. You’re a dilettante, a dabbler, a flaneur. You can stroll about uncommitted, browse the arcades, try an idea on for size and take it off when you’re done. Perhaps you throw it in the trash. Or maybe you keep it; you put it in your intellectual wardrobe. It’s up to you! You get to take soundings in a culture or a subculture, to explore points of view you would likely not have investigated otherwise, all while getting paid to fiddle around with someone else’s prose.

The constructive side of the work can, of course, be stated in far more generous terms. Part of being a copyeditor is being an advocate: taking an author’s side for as long as you’re reading their book, and helping them make the most elegant and persuasive argument they can while avoiding the embarrassments of minor grammatical or factual errors, misspellings, or misattributions.

Entering into the mental world of another person in order to help them express their ideas more clearly entails looking at their book from the perspective of the world and looking at the world from the perspective of the book—a good intellectual muscle to develop. I won’t go so far as to say I’ve become more charitable or sympathetic, exactly, but encountering such a wide variety of ideas has spurred my desire for the truth, uninflected by trend or ideology. My not-so-little side project in my years of listening in while copyediting, it turns out, was to craft a self—to learn from and incorporate genuine insights, truths, and perspectives, and to let the rest slide off me. Sometimes I found that my mind had been changed, sometimes that repeated exposure to an idea had made it permanently repellent to me. Time well spent.

Publishing trends sometimes interfere with this project of self-making; the books I work on tend to be restricted to either what is new or to secondary or even tertiary glosses on what is old. Textbooks are the surest path to sales in the academic market, so publishers are eager to propose textbooks to authors, and to accept textbook proposals from authors, and to reframe proposals for other kinds of books from authors as—surprise!—textbooks. This means I have read many more overviews of, say, Plato’s philosophy than I have read his dialogues, and more surveys of Karl Barth’s theology than Barth himself. I have labored for hundreds of hours over abstruse and stultifying “introductions” to what are by comparison short and straightforward classic texts. Most of these books have been too long. Not one of them has been too short.

All of this has given to me a strong personal preference for books that are (1) short, (2) old, (3) primary, (4) clear, and (5) not academic. Frankly, I now find it difficult to read any kind of academic book when I’m not working because reading academic books feels like work. But even this is a gift in its way. It has given me the freedom to pursue the life of the mind in what I consider the most rewarding way possible: quite literally as an amateur—that is to say, for the love of it.

Jeff Reimer

Jeff Reimer is an associate editor for Comment magazine, and writes regularly on literature, art, faith, and culture. In addition to Comment, his writing has appeared in Commonweal, Plough, Fare Forward, and elsewhere. He lives in Newton, Kansas, with his wife and four children. Twitter: @jreimr.