One of the biggest tricks to successful copy editing is learning to question. I don’t mean learning to question the author. That comes pretty naturally, and there’s actually a strong urge in the novice editor to over-correct because they’re so diligently looking for things to fix. No, that kind of questioning is easy. What I mean is learning to question yourself. I’ll explain.
As a rule, I try to sort all facts, vocabulary words, and rules of style into three metaphorical jars:
Things I know
Things I think I know (“gut” feelings go here)
Things I know I don’t know
Definitive statements also fall under the realm of “Things I Think I Know,” and here it’s also my job to have the author’s back. For my purposes, “He had never made breakfast for her before,” or “Three days had passed since the sinking of their boat,” or “She had never killed anyone before,” are things that can be true when they’re written…But chapters and paragraphs can get moved around, earlier content can be added, things can change. I treat these statements as being as unverified as any other fact I haven’t looked up yet.
From here, the procedure is simple:
1. I look up everything I know I don’t know.
2. I look up everything I think I know, just to double check. Because sometimes, what I think I know, or what my eye tells me is right, is wrong.
You’d think that I’d be done now, but I’m not.
3. Upend the jar of things I know, and sort them through again. Now I separate out the things I’ve already looked up before and remember. They go back in the jar of things I know. Everything else -– all the things I know but have never looked up -– all go to the “Things I Think I Know” jar, to be looked up.
I have, always, all my life, spelled “never mind” as one word; looking it up for a manuscript, I discovered that it’s always been two. I have always assumed that “all right” is the US spelling and “alright” is the accepted UK spelling; that was wrong, too. Just because I’ve seen a spelling or usage somewhere in informal writing, or even in books, doesn’t make it correct.
When I work on a manuscript, I’m being paid to know what’s correct. And to know what’s appropriate, that’s important too. But I’ve learned that I should never trust my “gut feeling” about whether something is correct. I may still choose to go with my gut, or my ear, or whatever organ you’d like to attribute intuition to, but only after I’ve done my research.
So, I do my research –- either in secondary reference material, or in the manuscript itself — and I make an informed decision about the suggestions I want to provide to the author. Doing the research:
a. forms good habits. The next time, the rule may be the right way to go, and my gut may be wrong.
b. acknowledges that the author is not an idiot. The author may have a very good reason for making the choice they have made; without looking it up, I might not understand that, and I might end up trying to turn something that’s right to something that’s less right. If I don’t understand their reasoning, I don’t understand their intent. To copyedit invisibly, you really have to understand the author’s intent.
c. makes my position defensible to the author. If the author understands MY intent and the rule I’m suggesting they follow, it helps them to see the issue my way. Or (and equally validly) it will let them see that I don’t understand their intent. If they see that, that they can explain what they were going for. Then we can find a solution that satisfies grammar and the author’s intent at the same time.
It’s easy to assume the author is wrong, but that leads to a “grading spelling tests” style of editing which I don’t particularly enjoy, and which I think forms the basis for writers’ wariness about working with editors. I’d rather double check everything from the perspective that the author may be right and it’s my job to be able to support them and affirm that they’re right.
I can choose to follow my ear, when the colloquial is better for the manuscript, but I don’t have the luxury of being able to rely on my ear without first checking. Then I can make an informed judgment call, and make informed suggestions. Some of the most common informed judgment calls I make look like this. If you’ve worked with me, you’ve probably seen this sort of thing in your manuscript:
* Technically, this should be “was,” not “were,” for singular/plural agreement, but this is one of those cases where it’s going to sound odd both ways. I recommend rephrasing to this instead…
* Technically, this should be in quotation marks, but because of the other quotation marks in this paragraph, it’ll be confusing to the reader. I recommend italics instead…
And because I’ve done my research, I can give that advice and let the author decide: technically correct, or “by ear” correct, or sidestep the issue entirely.
I don’t know how to spell the name of that river or town, or what year that war started, or that tickling for fish is a real thing or that “never mind” is always two words and “cannot” never is. I don’t know how to italicize ship names, or song titles vs. album titles, and when to use that or which, or lay or lie, any more than you do…until I look it up.
In fact, if there’s any piece of advice I give writers that’s never well-received, it the one where I try to tell writers who want self-editing tips where and how to look this stuff up for themselves. It’s grunt-work, I agree, but we editors and editrixes don’t come born knowing this stuff, either!
We’re all trained to trust our intuition in school, while driving, when making management decisions, and in all sorts of circumstances where there’s either no opportunity or no time to stop what we’re doing to do the background research. As a result, there really is a skill to developing the sort of self-awareness about your writing that allows you to say, “wait, I think I need to look this up” instead of “I’m not sure if it’s this or this, so I have to go with my gut.” It is hard.
It takes some conscious effort, and a deliberate commitment to never be so smug as to think that I know All The Words, even though I definitely know a fair few. I also don’t know All The Facts.
But I love working on books that teach me new words. I know where to look up All The Words, and All (or at least Most Of) The Facts, and how to spot words and facts I don’t know. And I commit myself to doing so.
Not so that I can tell you that you got it wrong, but so that when your publisher and your readers get their hands on it, it will be right.