Getting the Most from Your Copy Editor: Tips from Carol Fisher Saller

The Subversive Copy Editor is a wise and light-hearted look at what it means to be a copy editor today, or, as the book’s second subtitle puts it: “How to negotiate good relationships with your writers, your colleagues, and yourself.” Saller offers sound advice and rules of thumb on issues as unique to copyediting as which grammar rules to lay down and die for (in my case: clearly not the supposed one about where prepositions can fall), as well as on what may seem like very basic business etiquette, like being polite to coworkers, or double checking that you’ve selected the right contact before sending a sensitive email. Saller’s tongue-in-cheek tone and amusing anecdotes keep the content sharp and give readers the sense that Saller has already made all of the major mistakes on their behalf.

Your first goal is merely to do no harm.
— Carol Fisher Saller

The “subversive” part comes from her insistence on who the real boss is. The copy editor’s duty is not first to the publisher, nor to the style manual; not to personal sensibilities, nor to whichever deity is responsible for and sensitive to the rules of grammar; it is not even to the writer. “Your ultimate boss is the reader . . . . You all have the same goal of making that person’s reading experience the best it can be” (5). Of course, the writer and the copy editor are partners in this venture. The writer is the expert on her audience and aims; the copy editor is the first “imagined reader,” who learns “to want what the author wants, and . . . to keep her from wandering off the path” (12).

In light of this partnership between writer and editor, Saller has added a new chapter, addressed specifically to writers, to last year’s second edition. Here is some of her helpful advice on how to make the editing relationship work for you:

1)    Communicate ahead of time.

“Whenever you are about to be edited, feel free to ask questions about who will edit your work, what kinds of things they’ll be looking for, and how much feedback and negotiation to expect. If you have fears or concerns . . . expressing them up front might make a difference in the approach your editor takes.” (6667)

A copy editor is an expert in language and style, but you are the expert in the field in which you are writing. You have done the research, and you know your audience. Communicating with your editor ahead of time about expectations will help to avoid problems that may arise over unfamiliar (to the editor, that is) jargon or closely held personal preferences. If you are not writing for a publisher, then you will have the final authority over your work; but make the most of your investment in editorial services by letting your editor know ahead of time what your needs are.

2) Be graceful.

“You know what it’s like to come back to a hotel room in the afternoon and find that housekeeping has been there and everything is all fresh and put to rights? That’s how a copy editor would like you to feel when you see the editing. If you can view extra-thorough editing as the mint on the pillow, all the better. What we don’t want is for you to feel offended at the need for cleaning.” (77)

It is important to remember that your editor is on your team, and to be careful not to take offense at the number of red marks you find in your work. You do not need to (in fact you probably should not!) accept out of hand every change your copy editor makes to your writing, but remember that it is your editor’s job to see errors that you are too close to see, and at a level of detail at which you may not be trained or willing to attend. Often changes will be necessary simply to accommodate the medium of the piece. “A good amount of copyediting has nothing to do with how great a writer you are” (66).

3) If the product is all wrong . . . 

“Don’t panic. Keep reading and make notes. Everything that has been changed can be changed back, and you should assume that your copy editor will be willing to put back everything that she got wrong. Your review is an opportunity for negotiation and improvement.” (79)

In fact, you will not be receiving a final product back from your editor. Even a well-edited piece should be reviewed and tweaked so that the author is happy with the product and the editor can be satisfied with having provided a good service. There are no perfect editors. If you find mistakes or inconsistencies, ask about them and make sure you walk away with a professional product.

Remember, too, that your editor is your first reader and may be catching problems and confusions that you are oblivious to even when they are underlined in red ink. A good editor will know that this is your work, and will push back on your preferences only when it is clear that they will be an impediment to your vision. Communicate, understand, and negotiate.

4) Say thank you.

“Goodness knows, copy editors aren’t in it for the glory—but when we believe we’ve brought significant improvement to a project, it can make our day to learn that the writer thinks so, too.” (8283)

In other words, compliments are encouraged.