The Fine Art of Copyediting
A Book Review
by Jeff Staples, Information Developer, Kitba Consulting, STC Houston Webmaster
Elsie Myers Stainton. 2002. 2nd and revised ed. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. [ISBN 0-231-12479-1. 153 pages, including index. $17.50 USD (softcover)]
The Fine Art of Copyediting is designed "to tell enough about the publishing business for a would-be copyeditor to understand what must be done to prepare a manuscript for publication and why" (p. 1). This second edition documents the updates that have occurred in publishing procedures and editing techniques during the ten years since the first edition. The text includes an updated, annotated bibliography, offering recommendations of items useful to the copyeditor (or any writer/editor) such as dictionaries, thesauri, and style guides. For the novice, the appendix offers some helpful items such as an example of edited text and a list of symbols for correcting copy.
Although focusing on the publishing world, the text offers useful information for any editor. The author offers "practical advice [and information] on how to achieve mutual trust and respect and how to resolve the personal problems that good incisive editing can create" (p. 1).
Stainton starts with the "basics" (Chapter 1). A copyeditor, like most editors, addresses someone else's words and strives to make those words literate and clear. Consequently, the editor's "own accomplishments are often counted by readers as belonging to the author" (p. 4).
"Legal and Contractual Aspects of Publishing" (Chapter 2) addresses questions of who is ultimately responsible for the text. Basically, the author and the publisher are responsible for the text, with the copyeditor serving as the publisher's representative. Stainton briefly covers elements of libel, indiscretion (bias), copyrights, and other contractual items such as titles, proofs, and AAs (author's alterations).
In "Types of Editing" (Chapter 3), Stainton reviews various types of materials that a copyeditor may confront and specific editing items in each type. For example, with a trade book, the editor typically needs to ensure readable text and to code the text for design. Working with professional books in a specific field, the editor must be familiar with usage in that field.
"The Editor's Dilemma" (Chapter 4) discusses an element critical to a copyeditor's success: personal relations. In addition to working with words in a text, the copyeditor will be "working with a human being who is revealing an important part of himself or herself to the public" (p. 26). Stainton briefly describes ways to handle personal relations, including expression of praise and appreciation.
"Editorial Procedures" (Chapter 5) covers various copyediting processes that all manuscripts go through. These processes include tasks done before you edit the content, such as coding of headings, footnotes, and special type; verifying that you have all parts of the manuscript; scanning headings and titles to get a feel for the material; and checking for front matter elements. You are then ready to tackle the content. Stainton takes you through the copyediting process and offers tips such as "In phrasing questions for the author, try to be brief and direct the author's attention to altering the text, not to answering questions" (p. 42). Stainton also provides a sample checklist for copyeditors.
Today, "Computer Technology" (Chapter 6) has revolutionized and affected most of the marketplace as it has publishing. However, when asked if technology had contributed to better quality in the writing, managing editors responded that authors were producing more but questioned whether the writing was better. Maybe technology can't make the writing better, but as this chapter conveys, it has introduced such benefits as clean copy and spelling and grammar checkers.
In "A Concise Manual of Writing Style for Copyeditors" (Chapter 7), Stainton advocates knowing the proper laws (such as guidelines for the effective use of language) and focusing "the author's attention on revising or adding or shifting parts if necessary to provide the satisfying punch of a proper whole" (p. 56). As with all writing and editing, knowing and focusing on the reader is paramount. Stainton covers areas of "defaults" that affect the reader's experience, such as avoiding ambiguity, using the right capitalization, and employing proper grammar and usage.
Stainton sums up the copyeditor as one with "an eye for details...an ear for prose...as well as a heart to aim for perfection" (pp. 74-75). "The Fine Art" (Chapter 8) addresses sentence structure, the effects of punctuation, and figures of speech. In addition, Stainton advises copyeditors to be alert to new words and changing usage.
Organizing and clarifying "Notes, References, and Bibliographies" (Chapter 9) can be drudgery, as Stainton readily admits. Yet she adds that editing these elements can be easier than editing text if you're consistent and brief.
"Special Editing Problems" (Chapter 10) addresses issues that you'll probably confront while performing your editing tasks. Stainton brings up such problems as faulty research, transliteration, and multiple authors, and offers possible solutions. She wittily confides, "With luck you seldom will have to assist an author who is a fool" (p. 100).
"Proofs and Indexes" (Chapter 11) have come into the digital age, but hard copy has not vanished. Stainton conveys the proofing and indexing processes performed in publishing houses. The process is similar (although more complex) to the process that an editor and a subject matter expert might experience, so many readers will find useful the information and the sample checklists.
"Job Satisfaction" (Chapter 12) is something we all hope to achieve. Stainton briefly discusses various growth opportunities for copyeditors, such as moving up to the level of managing or executive editor. As in other jobs, different people will find satisfaction in various ways. As a copyeditor, Stainton contends that for her "the most profound pleasure has come from the knowledge that I am participating to a small degree in the intellectual life of our times" (p. 119).
The book is an easy read and one that you will probably read or scan in specific chunks. Stainton combines the material with bits of humor, as when she states, "Yet many people, like the faithful, persevering mail carrier, are satisfied to make a career of it [copyediting] whether the going is rough or smooth" (p. 117). Well, maybe that quote wasn't intended as humor, but when I think of my mail carrier, who won't deliver the mail if a car is blocking the mail box (which would force him to get out of his vehicle), he doesn't seem to represent a satisfied worker!
However, you will be a satisfied user with the information obtained from Stainton's book. Even thought you might not be a copyeditor in a publishing house, the information that Stainton provides can be useful to any editor as well as to writers.
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