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Introducing Myself and My Blog

I’ve been a copy editor for more than 16 years. Before that, I was a writing and literature teacher, and before that, a graduate student in English. Before that I was just another undergraduate who read a lot of novels, wrote papers about literary works, and aspired to be a writer.

Time has certainly flown since I took my first editing test one summer in New Delhi, a short exercise in what is better known today as “language polishing.”

Over the years, I have seen copyediting referred to by other terms and terminologies — “language polishing” being one of them — but the day a senior editor handed me a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and said, “This is your bible. Memorize it,” a whole new window on editing opened for me.

After sixteen years of mastering the Chicago Manual of Style and other style manuals, I know now that copyediting is a lot more than just “language polishing” or memorizing style conventions. In fact, it is sometimes an art and sometimes a science, but more often than not, judging by the many blogs authored by editors, it is a practice that borders on an obsession.

Today, I run my own small editing business called Absolute-Ink Editorial, and I live in Houston, Texas. Over the years, I have worked as a full-time, part-time, and freelance copy editor and proofreader on a staggering variety of book manuscripts, articles, website copy, and essays, mostly on humanities and social sciences subjects, but occasionally on medical topics and K-12 mathematics textbooks.During the first part of my career in publishing, I headed small teams of editors, trained them, recruited more, drove quality assurance, and managed textbook projects between India and the United States. After 2012, I decided to go freelance, get married, study some more, adopt a child, and, in 2020, start my own business from my home.

So here I am, waiting to share what I have learned along the way in my journey from avid reader to exacting editor.

What Matter Who’s Speaking (or Editing)?

Several years ago, when I was working in India, I compiled some thoughts on the impact of cultural differences on copyediting, which you can read here. This is a topic I have continued to think about over the years: does where you are located or where you are from shape your editorial decisions? So much of copyediting is about rules and applying them to someone else’s writing, so where does subjectivity play a role?

More recently, while working as a sensitivity reader, I have had a chance to think about these questions again in the context of reviewing textbooks for their implicit cultural, racial, and gender biases. Sensitivity readings have attracted a lot of criticism from various quarters as a form of language policing, but I think that they have their uses and value: for example, while doing a sensitivity read on a microbiology textbook, it struck me as significant that whereas the findings of male scientists dominated the pages, the book did not contain a single mention of even one woman scientist. In this day and age, I find that suprising.

Is this something a copy editor should be worrying about? These days, it seems that the answer is “yes.” A copy editor cannot rewrite a book, but they can flag such discrepancies and biases for the author or publisher to think about. After that, it’s up to the content owner as to whether this is something they want to change or address. One hopes that they will want to reconsider how their books present the history of scientific discoveries and research and that they will appreciate the close attention given to such matters by an editor or sensitivity reader.

We’re human, so biases are inescapable, even unconscious biases in language choice or choices about what information to include and exclude in a piece of writing. The best we can do is to continue to interrogate our biases and choices in an effort to bring a greater level of inclusivity and sensitivity to our writing. Textbooks that implicitly teach college students that scientists are white and male and that the human race is primarily Caucasian should be held to higher standards of scrutiny and review.

The additional lesson to be learned here is that is does matter who is speaking, who is writing, who is reading, and who is editing.

Why Hire a Copy Editor?

Many years ago, when I was a graduate student working toward a PhD in English, I experienced a rude awakening in my very first semester, when the professor awarded me a C+ on a term paper I wrote on Matthew Arnold.

There were a lot of “firsts” for me that semester: it was the first time I was a student at an American university, having just arrived in the United States from India a few weeks earlier.

It was the first time I was writing a paper using a computer — one of the old ones with monochrome monitors and dot-matrix printers in the humanities building’s writing center.

And it was the first time an English professor had given me a grade lower than an A-.

The reason for the grade, apparently, was my failure to use commas correctly. The professor disapprovingly alleged that the paper was full of comma splices, that it hadn’t been formatted properly, the line spacing was all wrong, and so on.

Looking back on this encounter 30 years later, I now see that it was a formative moment in my career as a copy editor. At the time, I had to eat humble pie and fix my mistakes and resubmit my paper. And on the next paper for that class, I got an A, which, if nothing else, proves that I was capable of learning from my mistakes. I was mortified by that C+, but it taught me something important about writing and the writer’s ego: no matter how good you are as a writer (or how good you think you are), there’s a good chance you are going to overlook some critical details as you fuss over the act of composition.

It’s always a good idea to let a second pair of eyes look over your work and focus on the critical details while you concentrate on bringing your creation to life.

If copy editors didn’t exist, they would have to be invented.

 

Rules of Style

Copy editors are voracious consumers of style manuals, and there’s no shortage of those. Different professions and academic disciplines have their own style guides and style preferences. In the humanities, MLA style and Chicago style are the most widely used; journalists and magazine writers often follow their publication’s house style, which is most likely looselyContinue reading “Rules of Style”

Writers and Editors

Copy editors focus on the mechanics, intricacies, and nuances of editorial style, punctuation, grammar, and editorial decision-making. I am always learning from the wealth of information I have been able to glean from my more experienced colleagues. But the writer and writing teacher in me often shakes her head at some of the copyediting debatesContinue reading “Writers and Editors”

Rules of Style

Copy editors are voracious consumers of style manuals, and there’s no shortage of those.

Different professions and academic disciplines have their own style guides and style preferences. In the humanities, MLA style and Chicago style are the most widely used; journalists and magazine writers often follow their publication’s house style, which is most likely loosely modeled on AP style; doctors and anyone else in the field of medical writing typically consult the AMA style manual; and psychologists favor APA style.

Toggling back and forth between the style guides of so many different disciplines and publications can leave one’s head spinning. Which raises the question: is it ever possible to standardize something like a style? And should we? What would the world of letters look like if we stopped italicizing newspaper and book titles? And are stylistic conventions really “rules” in the same way as the rules governing grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

The short answer to the last question is, perhaps, “No.” Whether you italicize The New York Times or not — and whether you lowercase or capitalize the “The” in its title — depends on what publication you are writing for, as well as the syntax of the sentence in which it occurs. Chicago follows the down style for “the” in a newspaper’s title, whereas AP style doesn’t — unless several newspapers are mentioned in the same sentence.

Such guidelines have come to acquire the status of rules, so that a writer following Chicago style would be expected to italicize a newspaper title consistently, but someone writing for the Web might not. AP style does not use italics for newspaper titles, for example.

Dictionaries are useful guides when attempting to standardize spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and italicization, but here, too, variations in style from country to country are not that uncommon.

Matters of style put an editor’s decision-making abilities to the test and present a situation where knowing the rules is as important as being able to apply them — and break them.

 

Writers and Editors

Copy editors focus on the mechanics, intricacies, and nuances of editorial style, punctuation, grammar, and editorial decision-making. I am always learning from the wealth of information I have been able to glean from my more experienced colleagues. But the writer and writing teacher in me often shakes her head at some of the copyediting debates and conversations I have read online because I want to hear more about how editors think about writing, and not just about the flaws they perceive in a particular piece of writing or sentence or paragraph.

Of late, I’ve been concerned about perceptions of an editor’s role as confined to fussing over commas and capitalization, when I see it as so much more. In this blog I will be sharing my thoughts as both a writer and an editor to show how the two inform each other in my own practice of editing (and writing).

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