Alexandra Hemmer

Why we (still) need good copyeditors

Life’s too short to tell stories in a hurry

Photo by Markus Winkler from Unsplash.

used to feel guilty for being interested in copyediting. I mean, looking at other people’s writing and telling them they missed a comma or two? How unnecessarily annoying, not to mention frivolous. To be fair, I’ve also struggled a lot with the disease to please many women are raised with. You know, to be nice and well-liked all the time. So it was no surprise that the last thing I wanted to do was pick a career where I’d seem annoying.

But in my second semester of journalism school, I had an opportunity to confront these thoughts through the courses I signed up for.

It was early 2020 and my degree program, so far, had consisted of constant reminders to be “digitally skilled” in a world where “journalism is dying.” On top of that, I was enrolled in a short but very expensive program, which only added to the pressure of taking the right courses.

After a full semester of taking mandatory courses mostly geared toward news reporting, I was ready for a more personalized experience, and one course kept glittering in the corner of my eye: Copyediting.

My fingers were ready to click ‘add’ but my self-consciousness kept playing in my mind, reminding me how many newsrooms have had to cut editors in an increasingly digital world. Not only would I be picking a seemingly frivolous skill to sharpen, but I’d also be actively working toward unemployment.

So I gave in to my fears and signed up for a more “respectable” course instead, one where I’d be able to find and tell stories myself rather than pin-point tiny mistakes in the hard work of other storytellers.

By the end of the first week of classes, however, I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be. That nail-biting Saturday morning, after going back and forth on my decision a lot more than I probably needed to, I re-enrolled in copyediting. I pulled the plug upon realizing that life’s too short to make expensive decisions about my life for other people. What really made me pull the plug was that there was only one seat left in the course.

Copyeditors belong in the digital age

Anyway, the next week rolled around and I strolled into my first copy-editing course like a nervously excited 18-year-old on her first day of college. I walked out of class that day feeling so unusually content for a student. But what got me was the reading assignment I was in for later than night.

We were assigned two chapters from Editing for the Digital Age by Thom Lieb, and I found myself so engrossed that I don’t remember the last time I’d been that interested in a mandatory reading assignment.

The takeaway? Unexpectedly breathtaking. Who knew the digital age meant good editors were all the more important?

Professional editors, probably.

But as a young millennial who’s only ever seen a digitally-powered world, I could not have felt more called out for my over-reliance on the magical ‘edit’ button you’ll find literally anywhere these days — from Instagram to WordPress.

In the digital age (as technologically challenged professors love to call it), editing has become such an afterthought, because—well—it can be.

With ‘edit’ buttons everywhere, there’s little incentive to check your work before you publish it. There’s even less incentive to read it more than once before you share it.

Just check out some of these hilarious but serious typos, or that time the Wall Street Journal called Britney Spears a briney spear:

Copyediting helps retain attention without compromising on facts

The impact of a copyediting mistake can range from calling a celebrity a spear to spreading political lies. Having been a journalism student in the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election—as conspiracy theories filled the air—I’ve seen how even the tiniest editing mistake would cause masses to lose trust in the news at a greater speed than they already were.

But this realization isn’t just for the sake of preserving newsroom credibility. It’s for everyone who calls themselves a writer. Good copyediting can make all the difference between a sharable story and a published piece that belongs in draft mode.

And in a time of abundant information and doom-scrolling, attention rates online are short. Really short. Good copyediting can help you cut out unnecessary sentences and even entire paragraphs, making sure your readers never have to ask themselves, “where is this going?”

Tips for effective copyediting

So to sum up what I’ve found to be key to executing an effective copyediting task, here are some tips I personally recommend:

  1. Read every single word multiple times.
    I know it seems tedious, and it is. But it’s absolutely important to read every single word, and especially to do so multiple times. You’d be surprised to discover what mistakes you might have missed in the first round of proofreading. I usually feel better after having read something at least three times.
  2. Read the whole piece out loud at least once.
    Reading a piece of writing out loud forces your brain to acknowledge every single word in a way reading in your head can’t.
  3. Question every claim made.
    Even the claims you’re confident about. Is Amsterdam really in the Netherlands? Is Lee Hsien Loong really the Prime Minister of Singapore? Did Covid-19 really break out in 2020? Is Keanu Reeves really part Hawaiian? False claims aren’t just a problem in journalism. Viewers and readers can be unforgiving with lies, and it’ll save you time (and energy) to get claims right the first time.
  4. Spell-check every name mentioned.
    Apart from reading the entire piece over and over again, I personally like to have a separate task just to go through the spelling of every noun. That means every city, every country, every company name, every school, and every person — just to name a few.
  5. Get a second (or third) pair of eyes, if possible.
    Finally, if you can, I highly recommend getting a second person to take a look at your work. It can be a colleague, fellow editor, classmate, or loved one—anyone you trust. Even if they’re not a professional editor—even if all they come up with is asking you why your font is so unprofessional. I believe every question plays a part in keeping the copy accountable.

Those are my top 5 tips, but there’s so much more to editing. If you think I missed out on an important one, let me know in the comments.

Copyediting is storytelling

By the end of that semester in journalism school, my perspective on copyediting had completely changed. I went in feeling guilty for investing in a seemingly low-demand skill and came out a fiercely passionate editor.

That’s not to say I know it all. In fact, each time I edit an article, I find I learn something new about the purpose of my role. And having edited a range of articles over the past few years—from student journalism to thought leadership in business—I’ve come to realize that editing isn’t simply about avoiding as many grammatical or factual mistakes as possible. It’s not even just about preserving a publication’s good name.

More than anything, I believe it’s about working together with writers to help them tell their stories powerfully. It’s not a superior-inferior relationship. It’s a partnership. And, in my experience, it’s a real honor to be trusted with someone else’s vulnerably rough first draft.

So, whether it’s a news article, a blog post you can easily edit after publishing, or someone’s personal statement for medical school, it’s worth taking the time to look through your copy before sharing it.

Experienced writer & editor covering a range of lifestyle content. Especially ready to talk about cultural identity, beauty, sustainability, and food.