What’s a copy-editor? What do they do? Why do we need them?

This is an interview with Robert Doran, copy-editor extraordinaire and all-round good bloke.  You’ll find him at Robert Edits.roberteditspic11-copy

Robert, if you were profiling a copy-editor, what characteristics would they have?

A degree of humility is essential. You must be able to keep your ego in check and remember that this is not your book. Any changes you make or suggest should chime with the author’s voice and be true to the message they are trying to communicate. Otherwise you’re writing, and that’s not your job.

You need to have an eye for detail, obviously, and you have to be able to think in a critical manner. By that I mean you should be able to put your taste aside and evaluate the writing on its own merits, considering where it sits within its genre or category and whether it’s doing the job the author wants it to.

You must have an interest in the nitty-gritty of language, too. If you couldn’t care less about the difference between a hyphen and an en-rule, editing might not be the career for you!

Is it what you always wanted to do and be? 

When I was a kid I wanted to design cars. I’d spend weeks drawing whole ranges and compiling them into “brochures” made out of stapled A4 pages. They had price lists and spec sheets and everything! Funnily enough, BMW never discovered me and I ended up studying languages at college, fully expecting to become a teacher or a translator, although I can’t remember ever feeling driven to do either.

How did you get into it?bookshelf 1

I got a job in Fred Hanna’s bookshop (now sadly defunct) when I was at college and I fell in love with the book trade. Bookshop experience is invaluable for anybody who wants to work in publishing – you learn so much, not just about books but about what makes them sell. What a lot of aspiring editors don’t get is that they need to understand the market, and a bookshop really is the perfect place to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. After that, I worked in sales and marketing for publishers in Ireland and in London, and then I moved into editorial because I wanted a new challenge.

How do you train?

The Publishing Training Centre has some great courses that are well recognised by the industry, and there are master’s degrees in Galway, Stirling and Oxford Brookes, all of which cover editing to a greater or lesser extent. Really, though, most editors do their training on the job and spend their evenings learning and honing their skills. You have to be driven to seek out the information that will help you to view a project at both a macro and a micro level. There’s a lot of hard work in the beginning but if it’s something that interests you, you’ll enjoy the process.

What’s sexy about editing?

Seriously? I wish I could give you something here but I can’t!

What’s a typical working day like for you?

I usually spend between one and two hours on e-mails, phone calls and admin and about seven hours editing, writing cover copy or checking proofs. Meetings probably take up three or four days a month. Within that there’s a lot of variation. I might start work at 7 a.m or 11 a.m. It just depends on the day. The freedom is great but you have to make sure you hit your deadlines and that you keep your clients happy. That means there are long hours and late nights sometimes. I often work weekends too, but it’s swings and roundabouts, and working from home makes it manageable.

What’s the biggest professional disaster you’ve had?

I’m lucky in that I’ve never done (or failed to do) something that resulted in a print run having to be pulped, but I shouldn’t boast about that, because it happens to the best editors. The most embarrassing oversight I can remember is allowing “faithful” to go through for “fateful”. I’m still mortified about that. (The author never noticed, so let’s keep that just between us!)

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

Rewriting a book from scratch, which is a lot more than an editor is usually called upon to do, and it’s a last resort, really. You’d never do it for fiction, but there are occasions when non-fiction books need a lot of intensive work. It was the first time I felt I could make a book happen even if the material was very challenging. For various reasons, publishers often commit to projects before they know exactly what they’re going to get from the author, and it helps if you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to make a book work for the reader.

Are there perks/hidden benefits? What are they?

I get to do a job I love doing. I frequently meet talented, creative people and I work with them to make something great. It’s a real buzz to hold in your hands a book that you helped to produce. Another big one for me, as a freelancer, is not having to commute and being able to choose my own hours. Also, you can work in your pyjamas if you like, but I would never do that. Never.

Can you break your approach to a manuscript into simple steps?  Is there a pattern to follow?

It depends on whether I’m doing a structural edit, copy-edit or proofread. With a copy-edit, I’ll usually skim through for gist and to get a sense of the structure or story arc. Then I’ll do the serious stuff: rephrasing, correcting errors, applying consistency, checking facts, eliminating repetition, making sure a character doesn’t have blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 6. I raise queries where necessary and comment on structural issues if they arise. After that I run a few macros and clean up the file before it goes back to the author. When the author has reviewed all the corrections and changes and answered my queries, I edit in any new material, do another tidy-up and code the file for the typesetter.

Have you ever refused to take on a manuscript? Why?

I turn down anything that doesn’t fit with my skills and experience. Also, I’m often approached by authors who have just completed the first draft of a book and want me to give it a quick polish before they send it off into the world to become a best seller. It rarely works like that, unfortunately. Most books go through several drafts before they’re even ready for a structural edit.

Does it ever make you wish you were writing things of your own, or is that the rudest, most intrusively personal question you’ve ever been asked?

I do write, but nothing that I’d let anyone see yet. Writing and editing are different skills, and one doesn’t necessarily support the other. There’s a degree of conflict involved. I’m continually impressed by the commitment and resilience of my clients. But yes, I do hope to write something really good some day.

You can contact Robert via his website, Robert Edits.

He is also Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services.

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1 Response to What’s a copy-editor? What do they do? Why do we need them?

  1. Beth Bates says:

    Nice interview. Editing as sexy — bwah!

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