Personal, Word Nerdery

How I Became a Copyeditor and Proofreader

This story—much like how I became a psychologist—has its roots in my childhood. For as long as I can remember, I’ve adored exploring and playing with words.

I learned to read easily and quickly, and it became my preferred escape from stresses in my childhood. At some point, I became as fond of the dictionary as I was our set of encyclopedias: it led me to appreciate the subtleties of definitions and introduced me to the fascinating world of etymology. Throughout elementary and high school, my standardized test scores in English, reading comprehension, etc. were in the 99th percentile nationally.

During our weekly lab meetings in graduate school, I began tentatively pointing out typos and other errors in manuscripts and other documents by my advisor. She was grateful for this and started asking me to review her manuscripts and proofs; I was happy to do so. This work was almost exclusively proofreading.

Sometime during graduate school, another faculty member gave me a copy of an article that discussed in detail how to improve academic writing. It showed elements of good copyediting using excerpts of a biochemistry article (not my knowledge base) and explained why the edits worked. I learned how much the placement of prepositional phrases and dependent clauses can affect reader comprehension; this has become a major focus in my copyediting work. Another effective tool is starting and closing sentences and paragraphs to emphasize the important information. My writing improved as a result, and I also became a much more critical reader. Learning some of the mechanics of good academic writing helped me recognize great and poor writing across genres.

I put all this information and experience to good use when I became a proofreader for a company that published investment-related information across several sectors, both for the general public and subscribers. In part because of the fast-moving environment, my work required both proofreading and copyediting. Often, articles and alerts came in to the production team as a first draft, so many needed substantial editing to improve clarity and flow.

The difference between proofreading and copyediting is easy to describe, but can be blurred in practice. Traditionally, proofreading is the final check of copy, such as galley proofs, prior to printing/publication of the final product. This includes errors missed by previous copyediting and errors introduced during the design phase, especially for printed material. Copyediting usually happens earlier in the publishing process, and focuses on improving readability of the material. This work clearly includes identifying typos and other errors, but goes beyond that to suggest better sentence and paragraph structure, and accurate word usage, to name just a couple of examples. Also, readability is considered in terms of the audience as well as the writing: academic articles tend to use jargon, other complex words, and a more formal writing style than op-eds or advertising copy, for example.

Copyediting often involves editing a work to follow a style guide, so that certain forms are standardized throughout the published material. This is why there are so many different style guides: readability and presentation constraints differ between novels, academic articles published in scholarly journals, and news copy (whether published in print or online).

Especially for online material, proofreading and copyediting are often merged into one step of the production process. Fact-checking can be part of the process too, especially if the copy hasn’t been verified in a previous, explicit step. Being a former researcher and analyst, I really enjoyed doing this work. Tracking down statistics and quotations to verify accurate copy is important not just for the piece the editor’s working on; it’s vital to building and maintaining an author and publisher’s reputation.

I brought my love of copyediting and proofreading to my teaching too. I wanted to help my students understand how to write clearly and more scientifically. Good copyediting and proofreading aren’t criticisms of an author’s work; they’re a vital part of helping the author present their ideas as clearly and accurately as possible. I think it’s important for writers to understand this, and to see editors and proofreaders as part of the team that makes a publication the best it can be.

For much of my life, I’ve been a voracious and catholic reader; exploring ideas and arguments is part of my nature. These days, I enjoy putting that context and my expertise to work in service of others’ writing more than for my own. Despite having given in to the vanity of having my own website and YouTube channel, I’m not always sure of the value of my thoughts to others. I am always delighted and energized to dive in to someone else’s words and not only learn more, but help them communicate their thoughts better to their intended audience.

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