copy editing is a thankless job. it’s also one that oftens goes unnoticed, because when you’ve done your job properly, things don’t necessarily look great, they just look…right. right?
people seem to notice mistakes, not the absence of them. when was the last time you saw someone slap a copy editor on the back and say, ‘great job!’? you’re probably more likely to hear someone say, ‘are you done with that yet? we’ve got real work to do here, and you’re kind of holding things up…’
why am i troubled by the plight of copy editors? well, i spent most of yesterday reading and re-reading an important proposal, searching for rusty needles in the haystack. the actual editor was in canada for the weekend, the document was due, and i’m ok with words. you can figure out the rest.
after more hours than i’d like to remember, we put the beast to bed, celebrated briefly, and then started printing. i left the office with a deep sense of satisfaction over a job well done…until i got home, that is.
it was only then that i remembered typos i hadn’t corrected, and started worrying about all the other document gremlins that made themselves invisible to my prying editor’s eyes.
while laying in bed, suffering through deliverable tremens, i decided there were at least three laws of copy editing worth remembering…
I. The Law of the Obvious Typo
Every document will contain at least one obvious typographical error. This error will be noticed by one of your colleagues, most likely one rarely referred to as ‘eagle-eye.’ They will casually glance at the document (after it has been printed, bound, and delivered, of course), and will say to you (the editor), ‘oh, i noticed a typo on page two. not a big deal, really, but, gee…’ after this discovery, you will notice that people in the office start making off-handed remarks about optometrists to you, and how craigslist has lots of great job listings these days.
II. The Law of Diminishing and Destructive Returns
The longer you edit a document, the less effective you become. at some point, entropy weaves its way into your brain, winds its way down your arm, and starts popping out through your fingertips like an alien ooze infection. you will start doubting even the simplest phrase, thinking that it isn’t quite as compelling as it could be, or that it’s about as clear as galois field theory. you will fix these apparent mistakes, impressed with your insight and attention to detail, and in doing so you will introduce even more typographical errors, which you must then catch on your next pass through. each subsequent read will lead to more errors and the need for more editing. you must stop at this point, hand the document to someone else, and go to sleep under your desk. failure to do so will result in complete meltdown (of both you and the document).
III. The Law of Asymptotic Editing
You will never be able to create a perfect document. Editing is like trudging along a literary hyperbola – you approach perfection asymptotically, but you never quite get there. At some point, you just stop editing (maybe at 99.9% correctness), and then you try to go on with your life knowing deep, deep inside that there’s a comma splice or a run-on or (gasp) a misspelled word in something with your name on it. (note: any mistakes that are left in the document will be attributed to you, the editor, not to the author who actually made the mistake in the first place. you will need to live with this as well).
any resemblance between these laws and the three laws of thermodynamics is purely coincidental (and possible subconscious). in any case, if you ever have chance to work with a good copy editor, make sure to let them know that they are doing a competent, if unremarkable, job. they will go to their grave knowing that at least one person understood their plight.
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