An old favorite, this essay originally appeared as a guest post on Pro Writing Tips.
Language, copyediting, and tips for honing your copyediting skills
I love language for several reasons: double entendres, its delicate and potentially brutal beauty, its occasional dive into the abyss of the ineffable, and its unconscious power.
We absorb outward reality—life—through language; it shapes our perceptions. For instance, most insults in the English language (and the Spanish language, among others) make disproportionate use of female gender and non-human animal designations, e.g. throw like a girl, SOB (note the B), he’s a dog, and the litany of your momma jokes. I wonder why a non-human animal as precious as a dog is used to insult a human, why there are no your pappa jokes, and why men aren’t told to get back to the garage like women are told to get back to the kitchen (which would be awful, too).
The obvious answer is that we live in a sexist and speciesist society—but I won’t go into that.
My point is that these terms, the words that we use to communicate with each other and describe the world around us, do influence the way that we see and treat each other and our surroundings. Humans have been penetrating and raping nature for centuries, violating it, and now our ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. Women are second class citizens in this world, and don’t even get me started on non-humans and other minorities. The power of language is not to be underestimated.
Words are weapons, not innocuous tools with which to craft one-dimensional “roses are red” poems. Language can neither be objective nor exist in a vacuum; it is dialogic: texts exist in and are affected by the culture system that encompasses them, including previously written works. Additionally, each reader will perceive content through her or his own mental filter, altering the text’s meaning even further. Words are, then, to be respected and employed with caution.
This is where copyediting (and, of course, writing) gets interesting. It becomes a multidimensional, unwittingly influential feat of taking over the world. Okay, not really. But a single word can, indeed, change everything. We copyeditors are trusted with a creator’s thoughts and get to manipulate them to our heart’s content. It is thus a grand job that we undertake, a privilege. I appreciate and take pride in it.
Throughout my years as a copyeditor, I have discovered tactics to help me sharpen my skills and increase my productivity. Here they are:
- Write and copyedit yourself. Then, have a painstaking grammar geek (maybe a copyeditor you look up to) correct your work so you can learn from your mistakes.
- Scrutinize books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, shampoo bottles in the bath—anything and everything you can get your hands on. Take notes and, if you aren’t sure, check them against a style guide or dictionary. Be vicious!
- Visualize words to help you remember their spelling.
- Visualize and punctuate conversations and songs in your head.
- Use a thesaurus—and always check your word choice in the dictionary before plugging it into your text.
- If you get a chance, take a short, mind cleansing break after copyediting a lengthy or abstruse text, and give it one last look-over before turning it in.
- Keep it tight.
- Stick to the active voice whenever possible.
- Share your wisdom: if you know writers who are receptive to feedback, give it to them, especially if you are the one to edit their work. Not only will you be helping out a colleague, but you will also, hopefully, not have to correct the same mistakes time and time again anymore.
- Give out copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (or whichever guide is most appropriate) for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and birthdays to lighten your workload.
The most important thing, however, is to enjoy the process. No matter how advanced your skills may be, there will always be more to learn. And this is good news! It means that there is no such thing as perfection—and if there were, our lives would surely be very boring. So be thorough, but patient; offer constructive criticism (to yourself, too); nurture your skills and others’. And have fun! Because if you don’t have fun, what’s the point?
- by Natalia2 comments »