Last week before Bible study, one of the leaders asked everyone to share an interesting fact that “won’t knock anyone’s socks off”. I could make a joke about mediocrity in contemporary church culture, but I shall refrain.
Unfortunately, the tidbit I shared missed the mark: There are hyphens, as I’m sure you know, but there are also two kinds of dashes.
That, apparently, was sock-knocking-off material. And although I hadn’t intended to explain the differences, their reactions necessitated the simplest explanation I could give. (And if you’re dying of curiosity, I’ve included this riveting information at the bottom of this post.)
Which reminded me how unusual the daily details of the publishing world are for most people.
So here are 6 things I’ve learned are important to being a copyeditor.
1. Re-learn to read.
When people read, we’re actually reading each word as a whole. That’s how we can read those those emails and Tumblr posts where evere vewel hes been repleced weth e sengle letter. It’s also how we can read something (like a blog post) a dozen times and not notice a typo. It’s why spelling can be difficult: vacuum and vaccum look quite similar, so conjuring up the image of the correctly spelled word can be hard. Copyeditors must learn to slow down and read not word by word, but letter by letter. We must re-learn to sound out words to help ensure that the spine text says Message to the Gentiles, not Message to the Genitals (yes, that really did happen).
2. You’re going to miss things.
Welcome to humanity, my friend! You might be great at spotting italicized periods that should be in regular font, hyphens that should be en dashes, or too many spaces between words. You might excel at correcting citations or semi-colon usage. But you can’t be excellent at everything. You can’t spot every mistake, even in the areas you’re particularly skilled in. But that’s okay. You’re one cog in the production wheel. Even if the buck stops with you for a particular error, rightly or wrongly, lots of other eyes examined the same material. You’re looking for so many details, it is impossible to find and correct everything.
3. Spell check is your friend, but not your best friend.
As you saw in the above example (Gentiles/Genitals), some mistakes aren’t ones spell check is going to catch because, technically, your typo is a correctly spelled word. Or maybe the word you’re looking at would show up with a red squiggle even if were spelled correctly. In this business, you find yourself second-guessing the spelling of proper names you’ve always been able to spell or that you see often. You carefully compare letters in words like “postexilic” and names like “Ahasuerus”. You know that someone before you might have misspelled that word every single time, or spelled it correctly every time save one. Spell check can definitely help with that, but it’s an algorithm and can only act that way. Still, you’ll also be grateful when spell check alerts you to some glaring mistake, like two O’s in “hope”. The trick is to focus your attention where there isn’t a safety net like spell check, but to remember that the net has holes.
4. You can’t let it affect you.
You’re a professional. You have to keep reading. You may have just read the most beautiful account of a dog’s sacrificial death that’s ever been penned, but you can’t cry over it for the rest of the afternoon. You may have read a deeply convicting devotion, but you can’t stop and dwell on it for half an hour. You have work to do. You have to keep going. You have deadlines and a duty to remain professional. You can’t read a novel like a novel; if you do, you’ll be reading, not copyediting. You can’t read a piece like a consumer, you’re a staffer. Wipe your eyes, take a picture of the question that got you thinking, and move on. The trouble with training yourself in this way is letting things affect you when you’re not on the clock. I’ve walled off part of myself to help me get my work done, and it’s hard not to sit behind the same wall when I’m reading for pleasure, not errors.
5. Reading is a tiny bit ruined.
It’s still fun, of course. But when you’re paid to read in high volume and pick the material apart, it’s hard to slow down and enjoy without the same urges to be critical. It can be hard to let yourself be influenced by what you’re reading. I love to read fiction, particularly YA and mysteries, and am so fortunate that I work in an entirely different genre. It helps separate the work and personal reading in my brain. But I still find myself bothered by a typo or bad line break in my personal reading until I turn the page. I’ve even taken a pencil to my books to mark the problem. I regularly do this with the church bulletin and sermon notes, too. The mistakes bother me until I mark them, but once done my brain can relax and focus.
6. Keep Sharpening Your Skills.
Grammar is boring, even to me. But it’s necessary. Not only to catch errors, but to be able to communicate your changes, or questions, to other editors. (And to know what to Google when you aren’t sure.) The same principle applies to the house stylebook. Basically, this just means that the company you work for has already figured out all the subjective stuff about how all the projects should look—from font size and style to whether to abbreviate books of the Bible and what pronouns, if any, you should use for God. The more you learn by heart, the less you’ll have to look up. Repetition will dull your mind over time, so make an effort to keep learning, and re-learning, as you go.
Hyphen = connect words or verses in the Bible
En Dash = indicate a span, like a span of time or chapters of the Bible
Em Dash = set aside a phrase in a similar way to how commas or parentheses might