Copy Editing vs. Editing Your Story, or Two Types of Close Reading

Last week I started a new job as a copy passer — that is, a proofreader or essentially a copy editor. At the same time, I’ve been using my free time to edit the novel I wrote back in November of 2015.

The more I worked on these projects side-by-side, the more I realized: Though what I’m doing in both tasks is called “editing,” the processes are not the same. In fact, they require completely different mindsets.

Editing a novel (or short story/poem) can be as fun, if not more fun than writing the rough draft itself. You’re still using the right side of your brain and thinking about the creative aspects of writing, such as the arrangement of scenes, dialogue, character consistency, and tone. You might start to see overarching themes take shape, which allows you to evaluate whether or not a scene is relevant or should be cut. This type of editing is intimidating, sure, because there is so much to do, and because rereading your own work can be daunting and scary. It is not by any means easy, and requires careful thought. However, it’s different from copy editing in that you’re free to play around a bit more with ideas.

Copy editing, on the other hand… woof. This is definitely a left brain activity. You have to focus very hard on remembering the technicalities, such as rules of punctuation, spelling, diction, and syntax. On top of this, if you copy edit something you wrote, you have to distance yourself from the story itself and force yourself to read it objectively, like a reader who is picking up the story for the first time; otherwise you are likely to turn your round of copy editing into yet another draft (which might end up ruining your story — see my post, The Rule of Three for more on this). If a writer does copy edit their own work, they will often do it last, as one final read-through before sending the manuscript out. This is likely because, by then, the writer won’t be as easily distracted by thoughts of their characters, plot, etc. The story may not be perfect at that point, but at least it is organized into something coherent, allowing the writer to pay more attention to grammar.

Not every author will proofread their own work, because not every writer loves grammar. Oftentimes they’ll hire out a copy editor before sending their manuscripts out to agents or publishing companies, and/or the publishing companies will have copy editors who look over the manuscript before it’s printed.

I was lucky growing up; not only did I love writing and reading, but I was also pretty good at spelling and grammar. English and Literature were my strongest subjects throughout school. As a result I don’t mind copy editing anything, let alone my own work, though I will admit this:

Copy editing is more exhausting than editing a story/novel/poem. Both are slow and rough processes, but copy editing can be so tedious, even for those of us who enjoy it. A copy editor must read very, very slowly, so as not to overlook any misspelled words or faulty punctuation, but they must also read to understand the sentences. This is difficult work and much of the time, when confronted with complex sentences, it might require the copy editor to reread a sentence two or three times: once to make sure the words are spelled correctly, and a second and maybe third time to make sure the sentence conveys what the author intended and is easy for the reader to understand. For a copy editor, there is no casual reading; your mind must always be active, your eye focused on several details at once.

There is close reading, which requires the reader to think about the structure of the story and creative choices of the author… and then there is literal close reading, where the editor often must examine each sentence and each word carefully to make sure everything makes sense.

I copy edit for 8 hours, 5 days a week. Though I enjoy the work, and even enjoy reading many of the obituaries and learning about all these different lives, I will not deny that I come home with a pounding headache from eye strain and constant attention to detail. If you choose to copy edit your own novel, or if you’re planning on becoming a copy editor, I have some advice: Do it in small doses, wear your glasses/contacts (if you have them), stretch a lot, and stay well-hydrated! It can be both mentally and physically grueling work.

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