Hello there. Hope you had a cup of strong coffee, thinking over what would be the four traits of a copy editor. Or if you missed my previous post, Making of a copy editor – I, you may go back to the post, read it and come back here. You would lose nothing if you go ahead reading this post; that was just some rant about how I stumbled upon copy editing and was stumped by the high copy editing provides. OK, without much ado, here are two traits I believe are fundamental for a copy editor.
The first, and the obvious, is a good understanding of English. While a degree in English or journalism is a good way to achieve this, not everyone with such a degree becomes a copy editor. A prospective copy editor understands the rules of grammar and usage and is acutely aware of the exceptions to these rules. My favourite example is the usage of articles. You have a handful of rules and a bagful of exceptions, and every time you come across a situation you find that the handful of rules and the bagful of exceptions are not handy enough to decide. Prospective copy editors are not lured into believing myths as rules. Myths abound and with the help of the Internet, they incessantly work to make you believe that they are rules. Passive voice in a sentence is fine; it’s okay to begin a sentence with and or but; mixing of tenses is a great way to express thoughts; there are so much more.
The second one, I believe, is a flair for reading. People who are indiscriminate readers make a good copy editor. One of the greatest advantages of being a voracious reader is you get to recognize the author’s style and the flow. The more you read, the more recognition you make. This comes in handy while deciding on the level of editing intervention for a particular piece of work. The skill to judge the tone comes naturally as it is hard-wired in your brain. Another important advantage of being an indiscriminate reader is that you familiarize yourself with the jargon of various fields. Whether you read more on a specific domain or you read any piece of writing you come across doesn’t matter. Either way, you unknowingly carve a niche on specialty editing or general editing. You may even read substandard writing. They teach more than a well-written piece.
Reading magazines or periodicals keeps us abreast of the latest happenings, which helps during editing. Some years back, while editing a book on starting businesses in Canada, the author wondered what would happen if the oil prices shoot up beyond $100 a barrel. He had written the chapter when the crude oil price hovered around $70 a barrel. But when it came to editing, the price had already crossed $100 a barrel. When this update was flagged to the author, he was immensely happy. Think of those days of political turmoil in India when there were as many as five prime ministers in a span of four years (1996–1999). Prime Minister X at the time of writing became former prime minister X at the time of editing. An editor who is a regular reader can easily fix these anomalies.
These two qualities I believe are not learned overnight. They are acquired over a period of time – perhaps a long period. The latter, especially, is a habit rather than a trait. But these qualities are fundamental to becoming a copy editor.
Now what? Go, grab another cup of coffee. I’ll come back with the other two traits in a short while.