The basics of copy editing

For many reasons, but mostly because of a query about how a college-level class about copy editing could be structured, I have been thinking about how copy editing can be taught.

From this pondering, I have decided to start an infrequent series of posts that explore the basics of copy editing.

I have learned over time that the first thing a person who is interested in being a copy editor should learn is how to read information and know what it is about.

If there is to be any editing beyond simple punctuation and grammar fixes, the copy editor has to grasp what is happening in the article.

Breaking news and gamer sports stories are easy: an event happened. But news analysis and features can be more complex. If the copy editor cannot understand that the analysis has to do with superdelegates in the upcoming presidential election, they will never understand why a quote about Elliot Spitzer being a supporter of candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is important. Finding any significant, or even many minor, errors in the story really hinges on understanding the larger picture--what it is all about.

Being able to understand what an article is about is especially important for any copy editor who must also write display copy such as headlines and captions. A headline is the news story wrapped up in significantly fewer words, and not knowing what the article is about would leave a copy editor in the dark.

Is it easy to teach a person to read in this way? Perhaps. In really breaking it down, it is Critical Thinking 101.

At one point in my journalism education, I was taught to jot down key words as I read through and edited stories. Then, when it came to the headline, I had words to work with and build from. In reality, this also made me pin down what was going on in the story.

Another exercise I remember was writing one-sentence summaries for all of the news stories in a newspaper section each day. (Kind of sounds close to headline writing, huh?) At that time, there was a grade on the line. Now, there are thousands of readers grading my headlines, and I don't want to be the one to fail them.


Beth W. said...

I'm interested to see how you progress with this, since like many other things my grasp of copy-editing is almost entirely instinctual (backed with knowing AP Style reasonably well and having worked as a copy editor for two years). I think it can be taught, but I've never been very good at figuring out how to teach any skill.

That said, I like your mention of knowing what the story is about. When I'm writing, sometimes I'm thinking about making sure the reader knows what I'm talking about -- but sometimes I forget that my editors/copy editors also need to be able to figure it out, and somehow that feels like an important thing to keep in mind when I'm writing, just so it doesn't get edited in such a way that meaning is obscured before the story gets out the door. :)

Mantra35 said...

Two things:
1. Page designing has destroyed the art of copy editing.
2. A lot of people are joining software companies as technical editors. Within an year, most of them start looking for technical writing career. Looks odd!

Matt B said...

Mike, similar to the idea you've pointed out here is the idea that a copy editor should read for meaning, as the folks at Testy Copy Editors have put it. Reading each word, each phrase, each clause and each sentence for its exact and intended meaning (which aren't always the same thing) will lead a copy editor to his or her best work. Constantly asking yourself, as you edit, "What does this mean?" is the best way I've found to describe "reading for meaning." Maybe you know a better way.

Keep it up, Mike. I'm sure these are helpful for folks starting out, and they can't be bad as reminders for the rest of us.

Pam said...

I hope you'll come over here:


and join the discussion.

The Copyeditor's Desk said...

I hope to hear more about how this develops.

It's not easy to teach critical thinking. That's a function of years of good education plus some experience, and few students today have the privilege of enjoying good education.

Your remarks on National Grammar Day, in an earlier post, were pretty entertaining!

Before I escaped back into editing, I taught copyediting to juniors and seniors at a major state university. One evening near the end of spring semester, I was holding forth on how to tighten verbose copy. Droning on, I started to describe ways to convert prepositional phrases into various more economical structures.

A graduating senior in (no joke!) English raised his hand and asked, with a straight face, "What's a preposition?"

This was not an English-Ed major. This was A GRADUATING ENGLISH MAJOR! Neither he nor any of his classmates had a clue about the parts of speech.

There's a reason for that. I directed a certificate program in nonfiction writing, a sort of "journalism lite" affair. One of my colleagues proposed, for this program, a course to be titled "Grammar for Writers and Teachers of English." The idea was to aim a few clues toward our students. As soon as word got out, the dean of the College of Education cornered this woman, an associate professor of English, and told her, in no uncertain terms, that our department was NOT to offer a course in grammar to Education majors.

The study of grammar is so out of style that university-level educators do not want K-12 students even to know about it. And that is why our kids have no understanding of the way language works.

Justin said...

Some really interesting thoughts here.

As a freelancer from England, I have often viewed the deterioration in grammar and sentence struture with growing disdain. It's almost as though there's a new language being invented (or re-invented) for the purposes of modern-day speech (but that's an argument for another day).

I agree with some comments that the ability to 'cut corners' using technology and flashy type-setting serves to distract or obfuscate the general reader. But is this laziness, ignorance, or an acceptable adaptation to modern language?

There's not direct copy-editing courses at a basic level here in the UK, but maybe we should have one.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much. I've just begun as a copy editor at my college paper, and while I am a competent writer/reader, I have absolutely no experience in copy editing for a newspaper.

Needless to say, I am flipping out. I bought the AP Style Book, but am still furiously googling tips and advice. This is possibly the most useful I've run across.


Anonymous said...

I am an aspiring copy editor. Are there any courses that you would recommend that I take? Or any well-known certification program that would boost my knowledge?

Thanks :)

Corinne Winthrop said...

Yes, copy editing is so much more than simply moving around commas and adding period every so often. A few years ago, I wouldn't have known this. I'm taking a copy editing class next semester to hopefully understand more how to write headlines and basically make sure the readers understand a story. Jotting down key words as I read through a story is an interesting approach I'll have to try out.

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