Every writer needs a copy editor. Inevitably, little mistakes and mishaps that prove distracting to readers will creep into a manuscript despite the careful attentiveness of its author. When we review our own prose, it is common for us to overlook surface-level errors and logical inconsistencies because our brains, which are programmed to fill in informational gaps, naturally read what we intended to write rather than what actually appears on the page. At the very least, a professional copy editor can provide a fresh set of eyes when reviewing your manuscript before publication, catching errors that may be practically invisible to the writer but would clearly be apparent to readers.
A good copy editor serves the writer by catering to the needs of the reader. As a representative reader, a copy editor will help ensure that your message is delivered in a way that is consistent with the way it was meant to be received by the anticipated audience. When I review your manuscript, I will step into the role of that eventual reader so that we can engage in a dialogue about the ways in which certain elements of the text may strike readers and how to clarify aspects of the text that might be confusing to readers. Thus, you are provided with the unique opportunity to vet the substance and style of your work on an engaged reader before it is sent to a publisher or released to the broader reading public.
A good copy editor recognizes that grammar is simply a communication tool. Copyediting is often an intimidating concept to writers because they've endured hurtful criticism or felt that their text was usurped by a past editor or teacher who was a stickler for grammar rules. Though it is my job to identify and correct grammatical errors in a manuscript, I don't judge a writer for breaking traditional rules; after all, language is constantly evolving and writers sometimes need flexibility. Rather, I view the guidelines that govern proper grammar and punctuation as rules of engagement for the English language; they assist in the finer points of narration that help readers process and decode the information in a given text. Additionally, putting a manuscript in order from a technical standpoint has the advantage of staving off criticism from sticklers and nit-pickers who would propose to discredit the content of your work simply because there are surface-level errors in the text.
A good copy editor knows that the devil is in the details. One of the lesser-known functions of a copy editor is the job of ensuring visual consistency within a manuscript. Many publishers and disciplines require adherence to a particular set of rules that deal with how to stylize certain textual features. For example, a style guide will likely outline a preferred method for dealing with numerical expressions, such as how the condensed version of the phrase “nine o’clock in the morning” should appear in text (9 a.m. 9 am,
9 A.M., 9 AM, 9:00 a.m., 9:00 am, 9:00 A.M., or 9:00 AM?). More than mere aesthetics, the consistent styling of a document demonstrates the author’s credibility to readers by showcasing the attention that has been paid to even the most minute details of manuscript preparation.
A good copy editor remembers that the author is the expert. Nonfiction writers take great pride in the amount of time and effort they've invested in developing expertise in their respective fields, and my job as a copy editor is not to counter that expertise but to honor your investment by making sure your prose and the ideas contained within it are clear and accessible to readers. Language is a slippery medium, and copyediting works to free it from the inadvertent errors, inconsistencies, and gaps in logic that are endemic to the writing process but distract readers from the content you’ve worked so hard to prepare. It is a privilege to be trusted with the writing of another, and, when your manuscript is returned at the end of our process, all that remains will be your words, precisely.