Phantasmagorically experiencing editing

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” quipped John Keats. When we experience, the learning becomes permanent like etching on a stone. We can relive the experience because we remember the finest details of the experience. And yeah, experiences shape us.

My first editing project was, and has been, a great editing experience and taught me the most important learning about editing – rules are there to guide us but rules are not everything. Continue reading


The making of a copy editor – III

Now, we are at the end of a series of posts. A quick recap: in my last post, The making of a copy editor – II, I discussed a good understanding of English grammar and the flair for reading as two of the four traits of a copy editor. While the two are self-explanatory, I urge you to read the previous post if you haven’t already and come back here. This post will bring up the other two traits.

Copy editors have an excellent eye for detail. They easily fix inconsistent usage (as in the previous paragraph where “a prospective copy editor” and “prospective copy editors” are both used; not that they are wrong, but that they are inconsistent for no reasons) (you also notice that the inconsistency I just mentioned is not in the previous paragraph, but in the previous post). They flag it to the author when the author says there are five characteristics for a noun but lists only four. They get a high when they fix an irrelevant figure placed out of context.

The first trait — a good understanding of English language — is more about looking out for what is wrong. Having an eye for detail is about catching those unusual and infrequent errors that are prone to be missed even by an ordinary reader. I invite you to a couple of videos to understand this latter trait: Test your awareness: Do the test and Test your awareness: Whodunnit? It’ll take a few minutes and I’ll wait till you come back.

I’m sure you enjoyed those two videos as much as I did. As you would have understood, “It is easy to miss something you are not looking for.” Copy editors are trained and are shrewd enough to not miss “something you are not looking for”.

But is it possible to identify all the 21 changes made in the second video? Perhaps you would have noticed the dancing guerrilla. Making note of twenty-one changes in a couple of minutes, that too when the focus is not on the change but on the murderer, is next to impossible. Can copy editors even imagine doing that? That’s where the fourth trait comes into play: inquisitiveness.

Copy editors have this envious ability to identify such problems at their slightest sight. The moment she thinks there is more to identifying the murderer, her focus is shifted to the portrait, or the flower vase, or the floor rug. The moment she definitely saw one change, it is more “something you are not looking for”. She indeed is now looking for something.

Consider this sentence:

Cytoscopy was performed rigid.

The first trait tells the copy editor that something is wrong. The word rigid doesn’t really sit well there. We need an adverb there, not an adjective. So we might be tempted to edit the sentence as

Cytoscoy was performed rigidly.

The copy editor instinct says something is awfully awkward there. A quick googling tells us that the word rigid as such is okay, but not its position. The correct edit would be

Rigid cytoscoy was performed.

That is inquisitiveness.

The four traits of a copy editor
The four traits of a copy editor

Now to quickly sum up, the four traits are a good understanding of English grammar, flair for reading, eye for detail, and inquisitiveness. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to improve each of them. Let’s talk about them later.

The making of a copy editor – II

Hello there. Hope you had a cup of strong coffee, thinking over what would be the four traits of a copy editor. Or if you missed my previous post, Making of a copy editor – I, you may go back to the post, read it and come back here. You would lose nothing if you go ahead reading this post; that was just some rant about how I stumbled upon copy editing and stumped by the high copy editing provides. OK, without much ado, here are two traits I believe are fundamental for a copy editor.

Knowing grammar well is *the* most important trait. Photo credit:
Knowing grammar well is *the* most important trait.
Photo credit:

The first, and the obvious, one is good understanding of English. While a degree in English or journalism is a good way to achieve this, not everyone with such a degree becomes a copy editor. A prospective copy editor understands the rules of grammar and usage and is acutely aware of the exceptions to these rules. My favourite example is the usage of articles. You have a handful of rules and a bagful of exceptions, and every time you come across a situation you find that the handful of rules and the bagful of exceptions are not handy enough to decide. Prospective copy editors are not lured into believing myths as rules. Myths are abound and with the help of the Internet, they incessantly work to make you believe that they are rules. Passive voice in a sentence is fine; it’s okay to begin a sentence with and or but; mixing of tenses is a great way to express thoughts; there are so much more.

The second important trait for a copy editor is flair for reading. Photo courtesy: photo credit: Early morning tea via photopin (license)
The second important trait for a copy editor is flair for reading.
photo credit: Early morning tea via photopin (license)

The second one, I believe, is flair for reading. People who are indiscriminate readers make a good copy editor. One of the greatest advantages of being a voracious reader is you get to recognize the author’s style and the flow. The more you read, the more recognition you make. This comes handy while deciding on the level of editing intervention for a particular piece of work. The skill to judge the tone comes naturally as it is hard-wired in your brain. Another important advantage of being an indiscriminate reader is that you familiarize yourself with the jargon of various fields. Whether you read more on a specific domain or you read any piece of writing you come across doesn’t matter. Either way, you unknowingly carve a niche on specialty editing or general editing. You may even read substandard writing. They teach more than a well-written piece.

Reading magazines or periodicals keeps us abreast of latest happenings, which helps during editing. Some years back, while editing a book on starting businesses in Canada, the author wondered what would happen if the oil prices shoot up beyond $100 a barrel. He had written the chapter when the crude oil price hovered around $70 a barrel. But when it came for editing, the price had already crossed $100 a barrel. When this update was flagged to the author, he was immensely happy. Think of those days of political turmoil in India when there were as as many as five prime ministers in a span of four years (1996–1999). Prime Minister X at the time of writing became former prime minister X at the time of editing. An editor who is a regular reader can easily fix these anomalies.

These two qualities I believe are not learnt overnight. They are acquired over a period of time – perhaps a long period. The latter, especially, is a habit rather than a trait. But these qualities are fundamental to becoming a copy editor.

Now what? Go, grab another cup of coffee. I’ll come back with the other two traits in a short while.

The making of a copy editor – I

When our professor stopped his class to read out a circular about a campus selection programme, I didn’t realize that it was going to change the contours of my life. There were two reasons for my friends and me to choose to attend the written test: we wanted to experience how a campus selection programme would work and the name of the company – Integra Software Services – sounded more mathematical, with “Software Services” adding the software charm to the expectations. Least did we know that “software services” was very different from “software development”. It was a February morning in 2004.

The four traits of a copy editor
The four traits of a copy editor. Image courtesy:

Three months later, on a hot summer day, I stepped into the world of e-publishing as a trainee copy editor – not expecting to make a career out of copyediting. Looking back, it has been more than 11 years in e-publishing, specifically copyediting.

We were given intensive training on various aspects of copyediting. The learning was fun. My natural inclination to learning and the high school grammar I learnt helped in many ways. Many of my colleagues were doing much better than me, but I was slowly getting engrossed into copyediting. At the end of one year, I had long forgotten the desire to look for some “better” jobs. I had already become a language editor. The initial days were shaped by editing the humanities and social sciences titles. Then I edited a lot of scientific content, followed by reproduction of Jane Austen’s work, and editing management books. I have received highly appreciative emails from authors and publishers; I have received an equal number of complaints for not meeting the expectations.

The journey has so far been wonderful. With an adventurous beginning, exploring a new trade, learning the nuances, adapting to different expectations, sweating out sometimes to meet deadlines, listening to the experiences of fellow copy editors, and training the tyros in copyediting and letting them experience the thrills of copyediting, the journey has been more than wonderful. During these days, I have met so many who readily loved copyediting and many who did not even after herculean efforts.

So, what made me a copy editor? What made many of my colleagues a copy editor? Why would many who stumble upon copyediting are lured into copyediting and why many others are scared? I think the answer lies in the four characteristics in a person that makes or breaks the copy editor in anyone.

With the fear of boring you with one long post, I decided to break this post into three. If, at the end of the three posts, you think that there was some logical flow, wow. So why don’t you go grab a cup of coffee and smart-guess what would be the four traits that would make a copy editor? The comments section to this blog have rarely been used. Please make the best use of them. I’ll come back soon.

A Valentine’s Day and an Antecedent Accident

Feb 14, 2008. To say it was a Valentine’s day is being redundant. It was when many of my colleagues and I were in our early and mid-20s, which made that V-day all the more special. We worked for an organization that believed fun in workplace. So someone proposed the idea of celebrating Valentine’s day. I was part of fun committee, and to give you a heads up, the members in the fun committee were extremists and eccentrics.

After a lot of brainstorming, we decided to organize a competition. The office had three floors. The contest would see which floor was decorated best for the V-day. The CEO would be among the jury.

Our floor housed copy editors and project managers. On the D-day, the excitement was visible. The desktops sported a romantic look, instead of the custom official desktop picture – there was a big heart with the words “Happy valentine’s day” written over it. The screensaver was the picture of a bunch of roses, again with a heart, beating. The color theme was apparent. Fruit bowls were placed at strategic locations. There were apples and grapes. The room freshener was strawberry. (Or was it jasmine?) The floor was to be half-lit when the jury arrived. Around their wrists, men wore jasmine flower bands. (Recall the “minor kunjus”of 1980s Tamil films, to visualize.) Women wore red roses. If my memory is strong, there was some romantic music too in the background. Overall, a perfect setting for romance.

All set and done. We looked at each other. There was big grin on every face. The moment arrived. There was knock at the door. The floor was half-lit and the door opened. The jury along with onlookers from the other two floors entered and they were completely floored. The CEO cried, “I’m missing my wife.” And then it happened – the moment of utter awkwardness, the moment that bowled over everyone, the moment I want to rewrite if can be. I shouted back, “Me too!” There was silence. Silence that was deafening. The CEO said, “What, you are missing my wife?” kept a straight face for a moment, then burst into a guffaw. Everyone joined him in a thunderous laughter, with me embarrassingly.

That was the last time I could remember I made an antecedent error.