Copy Editing – Part III: Editing for the Sake of Editing?

That’s what it sometimes looks like to me.

In the first two parts of this series, I told you what I think copy editing should be and told you about my experiences, over a period of 10 years, working with copy editors for the annual revision of one of my books.

In this part of the series, I’ll sum up with a few of my conclusions and observations.

Stet!Editing for the Sake of Editing

I don’t think a copy editor should make a change unless there’s an error in the text he’s editing. Error means something wrong. Not something that’s equally correct his way or the author’s. If an editor’s change does not make an improvement, it should not be made at all. Period.

This is my opinion, but I think that most people in the publishing industry — especially the authors, of course — would agree. In fact, it seems like a no-brainer.

But it does not explain the commas that have come and go with each edition of this particular book. Or numerous other changes that have not improved the book’s content. Those, I think, are edits for the sake of editing — the editor’s way of proving that he’s on the job, doing what he’s being paid to do. Almost as if he’s being paid by the edit and wants to maximize his revenue or worth.

Unfortunately for these copy editors, it’s the copy editor who understands his job and does it as instructed who will be called for the next job. My recent copy editor certainly won’t be working on any of my books again. (Most likely because the PE doesn’t want to have to deal with my complaints.)

A publisher has no need for an editor who pisses off all the authors — even if some of them are prima donnas. Who wants headaches when you’re putting together a book? Why make changes when the changes aren’t needed?

Frustrated Writers?

A lot of writers (note that I didn’t say authors here) believe that editors are just frustrated writers. The thought goes something like this: If you can’t do, teach. If you can’t write, edit.


In general, I don’t think this is true. I think some people just like to edit. They might have the skill set or patience for it. They might enjoy reading an author’s work and fine-tuning it to make it better for the reader. They might simply lack the desire to do what’s required to write a book: organize, research, compose, etc. for 300+ pages of text. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it. Just that they’ve chosen not to.

[In my case, the reverse might be true: If you can’t edit, write. My editing often comes down to rewriting. That’s not a crime if my name is on the book cover, but it is unforgivable if my only mention is fine print on the copyright page. So there’s no career as an editor in my future.]

But like other writers, I also suspect that some editors are frustrated writers. They just haven’t had the break they need to get their own work published — for whatever reason.

After all, it isn’t exactly easy for a writer to become a published author. (Again, I think there’s a big distinction here.) Sure, in the era of Web 2.0, anyone can write and be published. But it’s still a more traditional publishing process — one that involves acquisition, project, copy, and technical editors — that turns a writer into an author. And that process isn’t as easy as writing your thoughts in a form and clicking a button to publish it on a blog.

Got Something to Add?

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What do you think?