Friday Five-O: "Do I Need a Copy Editor?.."

“Do I really need a copy editor to look at my writing after I finish it? I have a pretty good grasp of the English language and I have spell-check.”

-- Don Determined

Dear Don,

I know, times are tough. The time you spend on your writing is already costing you billable hours at your day job, and you don’t want to “throw good money after bad,” as one of my great-uncles used to say.

To be fair here, you’re probably not saying that your writing is perfect -- you’re asking if a copy editor is worth what you will spend on a good one. And that is a question to which I only have one answer: Yes.

I use (shameless plug alert!) Chip Cheek, a Grubbie through and through, although I have worked with other talented individuals as well (contact me for recommendations). Chip has helped me in at least a dozen ways, of which I will mention but a few below:

  • My sentences use a bizarre logic. I don’t think I am alone in having a tendency to wind into the subject of my sentences so that only by their end do you know what I’m talking about. I think this is somewhat natural in a first draft, as you really are discovering what you want to say as you go along. Unfortunately, we’re not all speaking Japanese, where you can have the subject at the end and before that a litany of prepositions, adjectives, and the verb. Bringing my subject to the beginning of the sentence -- imagine that -- is something Chip has helped me with. Subject, verb, object. It’s a revolution!

  • I am not always accurate in what I say. And yet, I think I am. That ever happen to you, O Donny Boy? In my book I make a big fuss about the mistranslation of a Latin phrase (in medias res) that gets bandied about writing circles ... and then I go on to mistranslate it myself! Nice. Chip has saved me from that sort of ignominy, and that’s worth some scratch in my opinion.

  • I use a lot of excess words. If we had a copy editor here, that would probably read, “I use excess words.” Sometimes we use additional words to boost a feeling of rhetoric, but sometimes we are just in love with the sound of our voice. A sentence of mine might read, “That is why it is imperative that the list must be made from memory.” A good copy editor will point out that “imperative” and “must” are redundant (of course they are) and we don’t need the fancy lead-in -- so the final sentence ends up: “The list must be made from memory.” If your point is solid, a copy editor can help you get to it much quicker.

  • Rules of punctuation and grammar exist to help you write better. Are you smarter than a fifth-grader, Don? When it comes to punctuation and grammar, I assure you I am not. For all of my talent in other areas, I don’t know an en dash from an em dash or how to build parallel clauses. Working with Chip has taught me some of these rules and they have helped me express myself better from the get-go. Possible conclusion: if you want to save some money you can hire a copy editor first, study what she or he does to your work, and maybe then you can do it on your own?

  • Copy editors have style guides. Which means, they study whether something reads “a hundred percent,” “100%,” or “100 percent,” depending on the circumstance. And maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there are people out there (read: acquisitions editors) who will be impressed by such consistency of usage -- or at least they won’t be immediately turned off by what they perceive as your lack of care.

  • Copy editors question your assumptions. In places where you have made a leap in logic, a copy editor can request an intermediate stepping stone. In places where you refer to “what everyone knows,” a copy editor can confirm or deny that presupposition. Writers are notoriously myopic ... which in itself might be an assumption.

Now, I don’t want you to think I accept every change that Chip recommends -- I am my own man, after all. And I don’t use him for every piece. (Note: he didn’t touch this one!) But when I need to look my best, I make sure I am on his calendar. You might consider that, Don, if you are as Determined as your name.

Over to you,


About the Author See other articles by Stuart Horwitz
by Stuart Horwitz

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