Copy-editing: more difficult than it looks…

One thing I’ve learnt during this process is that spelling is fluid, despite what we were taught at school.

dictionary and copyeditingWhat’s so difficult about copy-editing? All you need is a dictionary, a style guide, and a red pen.

I’m working with a group of fellow Birkbeck students on our final assignment before graduation. Our task is to put together and publish a journal: 46 Square, an anthology of non-fiction pieces.

We are currently at the copy editing stage.
Copy editing? Or, is it copy-editing? Or even, copyediting?

Here are some of the other questions I’ve been facing:

  • Is he a man servant, man-servant, or manservant?
  • Do we singalong, sing-a-long, or sing-along?
  • When is it night time, night-time, or nighttime?
  • And do we say his eyes shone, or his eyes shined?

One thing I’ve learnt during this process is that spelling is fluid (despite what we were taught at school) and varies with both geography and the passage of time.

For example, night-time appears in my version of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (ninth edition, published 1995). But nighttime seems to be an accepted spelling in the USA. And some pundits recommend sticking to night time in order to avoid the dilemma altogether.

Another thing I’ve learnt is this: I could never be a professional copy editor. I read too quickly and am more concerned with the sense of the piece than the intricacies of punctuation and spelling. Of course, all writers are, to some extent, copy editors of their own work. But I have a new respect for those who do it for a living.

In case you’re wondering, these are the final spellings I settled on.

  • manservant
  • sing-along
  • night-time
  • and I allowed the phrase ‘his eyes shined’ because it seems to be an acceptable variant, although every instinct in my body wanted to change it to ‘his eyes shone’.

And copy-editing? The consensus appears to be as follows:
noun: copy editor
verb: to copy-edit

Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Your views are, as always, welcome.

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.

6 thoughts on “Copy-editing: more difficult than it looks…”

  1. Yeah, it’s a real pain and I still have days when I hate doing it! I think I agree with all of those, though I might have gone for ‘his eyes shone’. Though without the context of the rest of the piece I’ll never know for sure.
    Something I have learned in my time copy editing is that a lot of what you correct depends on context, as you say. However, so long as you’re consistent, many people might not notice issues anyway! A sad but true fact . . .


  2. I was a professional copy editor. Or, just as okay, copy-editor.

    I’d say that we sing along, but we have a sing-along. If the hyphen doesn’t help to clarify the sense, it probably shouldn’t be there. Definitely night time. His eyes shone is fine; so is his eyes shined. Slightly different connotations, I think. Manservant is probably better as one word.

    Nowadays I think publishers are less concerned to require the writer to conform to their own preferences and more concerned about internal consistency (internal to the book, or series, that is). That’s a good tendency, I think. However, if you look at the copy-editing guidance (hyphen because modifier) of many publishers, their list of rules is quite ridiculous. Some publishers believe, for example, that you must never put a comma before the word and. I think that’s preposterous. Similarly, subject-predicate agreement. And more . . . But I will desist.

    Some people who are attracted to this kind of work are there because of a petty pedantry, not because of any real feel for language.


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