Copy editing (also written as copyediting, copy-editing) is the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve style, accuracy (fact checking), readability, and fitness for purpose; and to ensure that the text is free of error (grammatical, punctuation, and spelling), ambiguity, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.
Copied and enhanced from Wikipedia’s definition
Who would be a copy editor? Who would want to tangle with the ambiguities, inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies, and downright irregularities of the syntax and semantics of the English language? Who wants to take on self-elected grammarians, punditic linguists, and strident language pedants? Only a masochist, or someone who’s prepared to take the brickbats and rebuttals of irate authors; or Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House US publishing company, author of Dreyer’s English, an Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, published by Century, 2019.
Last year, I helped an American friend produce a book for one of his daughters. During the copy-edit phase of the project, I came across several instances of the differences between British English and American English – not just spellings – and my friend and I agreed to differ. Benjamin Dreyer has had similar experiences and he’s produced two versions of his book – one that conforms to American English and a second written in British English. My comments herein refer to the British English version.
In 2018, I published a small book titled The Mechanics of Creative Writing. The book was mostly about how to self-publish either an ebook or a paperback book but Chapter 2 dealt with Grammar and Punctuation and Chapter 4 with Copy Edit: Polish, Polish, Polish. Benjamin Dreyer’s book is a superset of my two chapters and he brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the art of copy editing. Yes, I call copy editing an art – a superior skill you can learn by study, practice and observation – not a science – the acquisition of knowledge that can be repeatably demonstrated to be true. In simple terms, copy editing is subjective (based on opinion), not objective (based on fact).
Now, before you protest, here’s a thought. If a copy editor is a copy editor and not a copyeditor, why is a proofreader a proofreader and not a proof reader? The answer is there are no authoritative rules for English grammar; just a bunch of opinions, conventional usage, and people prepared to stick their necks out and say this is how it should be written, or spoken. I discovered this remarkable fact many years ago when I started writing, first technical papers and books and now anything that takes my fancy. In his 2015 book, Accidence will Happen: the non-pedantic guide to English usage, Oliver Kamm made this point very forcefully. He’s right.
That said, Benjamin Dreyer’s book is an entertaining and comprehensive addition to the ever-growing list of books on English grammar and he does a good job of identifying the differences between the two main versions of the language. There were a few recommendations I disagree with but since there are no definitive rules that’s to be expected. For example:
Page 28. He doesn’t like the comma in the sentence, ‘Suddenly, he ran from the room.” I do. It emphasises the way ‘he’ ran from the room. But, with or without the comma, the action is clearly stated.
Page 28, lower down. He has no objection to this comma-spliced sentence, ‘He had never noticed [the sunset] before, it seemed fantastically beautiful.’ I do. I would either strengthen the comma into a semicolon or even a colon, or I would go the whole hog and break the sentence into two separate sentences.
But, in general, I have no quarrel with Benjamin Dreyer’s recommendations and, in fact, it was interesting to learn when to use an en dash (–) and an em dash (—) even though everyone uses a hyphen (-) these days unless Word auto-corrects. I also liked his endorsement of my own often-expressed exhortation to other writers to read their prose aloud; to make use of the Oxford comma to remove ambiguity; to look for and move misplaced onlys; to search out and remove unnecessary intensifier words such as very, really, actually, pretty; and so on. Some topics he didn’t touch on include starting a sentence with ‘so’, the use of double negatives (and positives), and the use of online grammar checkers, but, hey, there’s enough in the book to occupy your thoughts and if you are a person who takes care in how you write, you will certainly gain from refreshing your knowledge about how to do so elegantly.
I do have a couple of nitpicks about the layout of the book. First, the initial page of each new chapter has the page number omitted. Why? Is this a Random House style choice or did it ‘just happen’? Second, Benjamin Dreyer peppers many pages with footnotes using the asterisk (*), dagger (†), and diesis (‡) symbols as intext locators and footnote identifiers. In reading the book, I often didn’t spot the intext symbol and thus had to search back through the page when I reached the footnotes. The symbols should have been a larger font size to that of the text. Also, if the author ever converts his book into an ebook, he will discover that footnotes are not compatible with the reflowable text layout of an ebook. There are no page numbers or boundaries in an ebook. Converting a paperback book with footnotes into an ebook will require all footnotes be converted into hyperlinked endnotes, or integrated back into the main text. Either solution is a major pain to the proofreader (the person who lays out the page).
I found a grammatical error in the book. I won’t say where or what but my heart went out to Benjamin Dreyer when I spotted it. He has been a professional copy editor for over twenty-five years and now a head honcho at Random House US. He must have had a small army of fellow copy editors check and recheck the book before publication and yet this error slipped through the net. It has happened to me as well. I polish my text to infinity. I use my wife, my sister and anyone else willing to check my prose before I finally push the Publish button on Amazon KDP or Smashwords. But always I spot, or someone else spots, a post-publication error, and always I kick myself for not seeing it before pushing the button. Within an ebook, it’s easy to correct and upload a modified DOCX or PDF file. With a self-published paperback book, it’s also easy to upload a corrected manuscript but the evidence will always be there in those pre-corrected hard copies.
I’m not one to savour the joys of schadenfreude, nor do I sit inside glass houses throwing brickbats. I am genuinely sympathetic but, right now, I must go back and read, re-read, and re-read yet again my comments on Benjamin Dreyer’s excellent book in order to find the error I know is lurking within my prose. There may be more than one. The only thing I know for sure: I won’t find it but someone else will. After it’s been published.
My wife, Carol, and my sister, Maureen, checked this review before I posted it. They both suggested changes, which I acted upon. As and when you find the elusive error, I’ll blame its presence on them!