Reading Like A Copyeditor

Katherine Longshore 5 Tuesday, July 30, 2013

As Donna said yesterday, reading is so very important for a writer.  It’s important for us to be able to see how other writers craft their novels.  It’s important for us to be inspired.  But occasionally, my editorial brain takes over.

I recently read a book in which the houses had names.  You know, like Thornfield or Pemberley or Downton Abbey.  Unfortunately, one particular house had two names.  More specifically, it had one name that had probably at some point been changed by the author, but there were a couple of instances where the change hadn’t been made.

“This author obviously didn’t have my copyeditor,” I said to my husband after the second slip-up.

I’m very proud of my copyeditor.  She catches everything.  This is also the reason I dread copyedits.  On the one hand, I sigh, “Thank goodness she caught that! I’d hate to send that mistake out into the world!”  On the other hand, I think, “How can I make so many mistakes?!  My copyeditor must think I’m an idiot!”

“You should be a copyeditor,” my husband said nonchalantly.

Sometimes, I read like a copyeditor. Especially when I am at the copy editing stage in my own work (I think it’s like picking up a Southern accent when I visit Georgia).  It's difficult for me to take that red pen out of my mind.  In the last book I read, I caught a line break in the middle of a sentence.  In the book before that, a sentence with no period.  The one before that made me absolutely crazy because it was full of inconsistencies of time and place (for example, the narrator went into a coffee shop at three a.m., didn’t get served—because he was a jerk to the waitress—and came out again just before sunset.  I wondered, however, if this was because the book was a memoir and the author was obviously a bit of a know-it-all, self-satisfied jerk who probably argued every single edit, so maybe the copyeditor just gave up.)

On the one hand, this makes me feel better—see, I’m not the only one who makes mistakes!  It also sometimes makes me feel like a know-it-all, self-satisfied jerk.  Worst of all, it’s distracting.  I have a friend who used to work as a continuity checker for films (you know, making sure the actor has the same tie on in consecutive scenes, or that the microphone boom isn’t showing in the top of the frame).  Years later, she says it can still ruin a movie for her.

We read and watch movies to be entertained.  Not to be brought back abruptly by missing commas and glaring echoes.  Unfortunately for me, this is part of reading like a writer.  I now keep an eye on turning points, rising tension, climax, resolution.  I see where authors have popped in a “save the cat” moment.  I see how they raise the stakes.  I look for these things because, like Donna, I am always searching for good ways—elegant ways—to get them into my own work.  Now I also look for dropped commas.

I still enjoy reading.  Heck, I love reading.  But a book really needs to hold my attention to break me of my writerly reading of it. Every once in a while, a book comes along that just sweeps me up and carries me with it.  A book so cleverly written and well-paced—with a believable voice and tension on every page—that I forget to look.  I am in the story, a part of the action.  I read for the pure joy of it.

I don’t know if copyeditors can do that.  Everything is brought to a minute level when you read for those little mistakes.  Perhaps this is another reason that the copyedit level is my least favorite revision.  You forget to see the big picture and see only the mistakes.  You can’t afford to be distracted by language or story.  You can’t be swept away.

“I don’t want to be a copyeditor,” I told my husband, diving back into the author’s world in which one house could have two names. “I want to be a writer.”


Copyediting/proofreading (the lines often blur between these) isn't fun for everybody, but there are some of us who truly enjoy the process. If I really love a work, my own or someone else's, I especially appreciate the process of giving it that extra polish, removing all the strange little things that slip in so that others can enjoy it distraction-free. There's lots of work in the world and lots of different personalities to do it. You're right that copyeditors can't afford to be distracted by story, but then one can always read a work through to the end before beginning corrections. :)

Connie, I am so glad there are people out there like you, who love this part of the process! Even though I don't always enjoy doing it, I, too, appreciate that extra polish. And you're right--one of the best things this crazy publication ride has taught me is that everyone reads differently. And thank goodness, because it would be a very boring world if we were all the same.

I get very distracted by minor mistakes, too, so I'm always surprised when someone points them out in my own writing! Because don't I catch everything?

Obviously not.

So yes, thank goodness for copyeditors--and writer friends with eagle eyes.

I was finding so many mistakes in books, I started keeping a blog of them, but I don't update it much now because there are so. Many. Typos. I can't keep up! But I still jot them down on a notepad with the title and page number.

Thanks, Beth and Ryan! I'm glad it's not just me--both finding mistakes and making them!

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