Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Let us now praise copy editors

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Let us now praise copy editors

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

For the past few years I’ve been thinking about copy editors. Actually, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for them: as a writer I’ve appreciated their ability to keep me from embarrassing gaffes and missteps. In fact, that keen second look is one of the things I miss now that I’m writing a blog instead of a newspaper column. And as a reader, I’ve appreciated their behind-the-scenes touch that leaves me free to concentrate on the sense of what I’m reading without being distracted by errors.

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 For several years now I’ve been wondering if copy editing, even at major publishing houses, has been replaced by a quick run through a spell check program.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.

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