Monday, May 12, 2008

Copy Editors: Must They Suck?

I'm presently working through the proofs for my next book. This is usually a frustrating process at best: one's precise, yet manifestly readable and engaging prose is inevitably turned into crap by some copy editor somewhere who very likely knows nothing about one's topic. One learns to live with it. However, this time around, things have gotten really bad. To wit:

Nearly every instance of "according to which" has been changed to "namely,"even in cases where "namely" makes no sense. Example:

Original sentence: Deflationism is the view according to which truth is not a substantive property. The task of the deflationist program is to...

Changed sentence: Deflationism, namely, the view that truth is not a substantive property, has as its task...

My favorite copy-editor mangle thus far is:
The questions of ontology have two main areas naturalists have taken that they might help.

What bullshit.


729 said...

WTF? How does "namely" improve "according to which," except by removing two words? If one wanted to clear out "wordiness," why not just:"Deflationism is the view that truth is not a substantive property. The task of the deflationist program..."

Instead, under some compulsion to trim and consolidate, your copy editor fails to grasp that there is a difference between the characterization of a thesis (Deflationism), and the (Deflationist) program people holding that thesis establish and carry out.

Your copyeditor should get a job at the Chronicle writing about philosophy.

Spiros said...

Yes-- it's as if "according to which" is deemed too "academic" and there's a premium on lowering the number of *sentences* in the book! I'm exhausted...

One nice thing, though, is that I've found a number of utterly useless words to include in the index. Words like "banana" and "thrillseekers."

The Brooks Blog said...

My favourite trick by a copy editor was that she elected to capitalize all instances of 'state' or 'states' so that:

'John Rawls States two views of...'

'The current State of political philosophy...'

After my protests and completing corrections by hand on nearly every page, the copy editor then made *all* appearances of 'State' and 'States' turn to lower case, so that:

'The United states is a ....'

'In Nozick's Anarchy, state, and Utopia ...'

Worse still, all my grammar corrections noted by hand were overlooked. A real nightmare!

do copy editors suck? said...


Can these changes affect the proposal? For the better/worse?

Would be interesting to read a before and after.

Spiros said...


Wow. I have one for you: for my first book, I was queried via email from the copy editor about the formula "S knows that p." Thinking that this query was simply for the editor's information, I dutifully explained that this is a common formula in epistemology, where S is taken to stand for some individual (or "subject") and p stands for some proposition.

When the finished product-- you know, between two covers, appeared, I found that the copy editor *created* a new footnote in the book using the text of that email! How embarrassing to seem to think that one's fellow philosophers need a footnote to explain "S knows that p"!!!

Spiros said...

Do copy editors suck?:

Many of them do. Here's a before/after sentence:

"Naturalists have tried to help with two main kinds of question in the area of ontology."

"The questions of ontology have two main areas naturalists have taken that they might help."

The "before" is not fine prose, I admit. But the "after" is surely a mangle.

Anonymous said...

"Nearly every instance of "according to which" has been changed to "namely,"even in cases where "namely" makes no sense."

You need to insert a space in the above sentence. And how dare you lump me in with these jerks!

Ketchup nightmares to you!


Spiros said...


I wasn't lumping you in. To me, you're so much *more* than a copy editor...

Skim don't plunge,

Anonymous said...

That means more to me than all the red pens in the world (unless they were given to me by Dutch Bag as a birthday gift, of course).

Honestly, if I were to copy edit something within a topic that I knew nothing about, I'd probably read it first and query the fuck out of it (which I assume is annoying in its own way). After I got the answers I needed (and created a fabulous style guide), I'd do the actual edit. Summarily changing an author's work is not my usual style.


Spiros said...


Now would you please un-do your ketchup nightmares wish???

Anonymous said...

Consider it done.


Spiros said...

Does that mean that you've done it?

juniorperson said...

Oh, if you want *real* copy-editing nightmares (and not just this amateur copyediting fuckupedness), get something accepted to the Journal of Value Inquiry, and let the lunacy begin!

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John Dargo said...

I have a first novel at a small publisher. I have a large cadre of personal friends who pre-edit and test read my books. As such, my first book already sounded great and read quite well. Anyway, the editor got ahold of it and mangled it. The editor was less qualified to be an editor than my test readers. She was fired and now they have given me a new editor who wants to dumb the book down and change the content. It will no longer be historical, nor a novel. I was told the story was light by test readers, but the pub wants it ultralight or a romance. I've been told by two different readers that I write like Dan Brown. But I guess I need an unqulified idiot to screw my book up before it can be released. Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I have finally realized why people hate copy editors. In fact, I am a copy editor. I took a job working for an open-source sports website. Though some of the writing I edit is dreadful, I understand writers' frustrations. I really don't think I'm a cut out for copy editing anymore.It's not that I don't think I'm "good" at it, but I just feel like a jerk every time I edit someone's article. My hands are tied by the site because there are certain guidelines editors must follow—guidelines that I don't really agree with. I feel like a villain—like I'm overstepping my bounds and ruining a piece of writer rather than enhancing it. What I really want to do is write, so I guess I'll be switching sides. It's become evident that a career change is necessary.

Serena Thomson said...

The copyeditor may also incorporate the author's replies to queries; this work is known as cleanup editing.

Copy editing services