Let us now praise copy editors
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I just read about a major copy editing lapse at the New England Journal of Medicine where, you would think, attention would be paid to the fact that a mistake could actually be a life or death issue.
Typical, I say. For several years now I’ve been wondering if copy editing, even at major publishing houses, has been replaced by a quick run through a spell check program. So “here” can sometimes be “hear.” Or maybe “there’s” no “they’re” “their.” No book, it seems, is significant enough to get careful hands-on editing. I was particularly grieved to find two glaring mistakes in the late Wendy Wasserstein’s final work, her novel, “Elements of Style.” And more recently, the Pulitzer Prize winner “Tinkers,” too, had two sadly obvious problems. In fact, there’s hardly a book I’ve read lately where I haven’t noticed at least one error.
And, really, copy editing is one of those things that shouldn’t be noticed. It should be invisible. You should be able to read a book without thinking that someone had to make sure each word was right. Each word should, simply, be right.
Putting something in print gives it authority, so it had better be right. There is a lot of fine writing out in the world. And there is some good, careful editing, too. Maybe it’s economics. Maybe it’s the democratizing effect--good in so many ways--of everyone being able to publish instantly. Whatever the cause, there’s also a lot of bad writing, too, and it chips away at our respect for the craft, to the detriment of the good writers. And, perhaps even worse, careless editing leaves us distrusting the written word.
To all you copy editors, my thanks for work well and unobtrusively done. Your work may be invisible, but when it’s left undone or poorly done, it shows all too clearly. And we, as writers and readers, are the worse for it.