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.

And there are myths

Recently I received a WhatsApp message, a picture message with Vivekananda, the great saint in his arms-crossed pose. Unusually, this time it was about English grammar. I was rather surprised. Many of his quotations are on meditation, Hinduism, devotion, and the like. Vivekananda on grammar? Hmm, interesting. But I immediately realized that a similar quotation was attributed to C.N.Annadurai, erstwhile chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Okay, the story goes that Vivekananda was asked by an Englishman whether the former can create a sentence with three because‘s consecutively, to which Vivekananda replied:

No sentence can begin with because because because is a conjunction.

This is a slightly varied version to what is attributed to C.N.Annadurai:

No sentence can end with because because because is a conjunction.

I’ve two problems here: (1) the Indian mentality to attach everything intellectual to anyone we want to celebrate (the atrocious American-flag-flying-half-mast tweets and the UN observing World Students’ Day, both in honour of Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam) and (2) the grammatical perspective to the above two variations of three because‘s.

I reserve my comments on the first one to a different forum and talk about the second. I disagree with both the versions. There are grammar rules and there are myths. And myths outnumber rules.

Firstly, to answer “Vivekananda”, a sentence can begin with becauseBecause is a conjunction doesn’t mean that it cannot begin a sentence. Anyone with a basic understanding of sentence formation will immediately tell you that one of the basic sentence structures is a dependent clause followed by an independent clause. As a subordinating conjunction, because heads dependent clauses. So,

Because of the WhatsApp message, I’m motivated to write this post.

Next, to answer Annadurai, a sentence can end with because. Again, the principle argument would be that because is a conjunction and cannot hang around at the end of the sentence without anything to connect. Oh, wait. Consider this:

It’s a myth that no sentence can end with because.

As a copy editor, I would rather write

It’s a myth that no sentence can end with because.

The subtle difference is that in the latter example, the word is not used semantically, but as a word. Foul game, you may cry. But in the original two sentences (yes, those by “Vivekananda” and Annadurai), two of the three instances are because as a word; I just used it once.

Sorry “Vivekanandas” and “Annadurais” out there, don’t spread myth. You may be booked by the Cyber Crime department.

PS: I’m sure you noticed that I broke in this post another myth that and and but cannot begin sentences. Pat yourself on the back.

An approach to “approach to”

Editing is interesting.

Sometimes the discussions around an edit become much more interesting.

And there is always a duel between editors who want to think language can be kept simple and editors who think otherwise.

Many a times, there is no result.

Recently there was a discussion on the phrase following the word “approach.” One of the editors was unsure about editing the phrase “approach to relieving pain.” She initially thought the verb following the infinitive marker should be in the base form, thus inclined to edit the phrase as “approach to relieve pain.” However, the conscious copy editor in her whispered in her ears to check with someone. So she did. After much deliberation, the phrase was left unedited. Rightly so.
There is a belief, perhaps seen more among the learners of English as a second language, that whenever a verb follows the word “to,” the latter is an infinitive marker. Not always the case, because “to” has other functions as a preposition and as an adverb (yes, as an adverb). While it is true that the “to” before a verb form is an infinitive marker, sometimes it functions as a preposition. When “to” functions as a preposition, what follows need not be a verb but a noun (or a gerund). The tricky part is that sometimes identifying the function of “to” is an intricate task.

Let’s focus on the phrase in hand – “approach to.”

The phrase “approach to” is shown in boldface as “approach to (sth)” in my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (8th edition). A phrase in boldface here indicates that it is a standard phrase in English; “sth” is an abbreviation for “something,” which can be understood as “substitute here a noun or its equivalent.”

(There are two other usage points with the structure “approach to” as in “an approximation to something” or “denoting a road, sea passage, or other way leading to a place.” Even though in these cases a noun follows the structure, our discussion centers around the meaning “a way of dealing with a situation or problem.”)

Let’s consider three examples:

  1. We need a whole new approach to the job.
  2. The following gives an example of the WHO approach to treating chronic pain with medications.
  3. The researchers describe a new approach to promote regeneration of heart tissue.

 The cake walk

The first example – “We need a whole new approach to the job” – meets all the criteria for being a perfect candidate for “approach to (sth)” syntax: a standard phrase with defined meaning,”to” as preposition, and “the job” as the object of the preposition. No problems for the editor here.

 Walking down the catwalk

The second example – “The following gives an example of the WHO approach to treating chronic pain with medications” – is like walking down the catwalk. The author of this sentence clearly understands the structure and substituted the gerund form as the object of the preposition. All the copy editor needs to have is an eye for such constructions and be grateful to the author – and English language in general – by not editing the gerund form to its infinitive form. The situation, or problem, here is “treating chronic pain with medications,” not “treat chronic pain with medications.” So, the construction is “approach to treating chronic pain with medications.” Perfect. Dear copy editor, don’t fiddle with this sentence.

Walking on egg shells

The third example – “The researchers describe a new approach to promote regeneration of heart tissue” – is tricky. By the standard construction, it is tempting to edit the phrase “approach to promote” as “approach to promoting,” changing the verb to its gerund form, making it the object of the preposition. Another possibility is to see the phrase “to promote sth” denoting purpose, with “to” as the infinitive; perhaps unanswering the question “approach to what?” This can be checked by juxtaposing the phrase as

To promote regeneration of heart tissue, the researches describe a new approach.”

Such juxtaposition may not work with sentence like

The approach to relieve back pain is a combination of medications and physical exercise.

The sentence doesn’t look standard, so you edit as

The approach to relieving back pain is a combination of medications and physical exercise.

Now what?

Now that the copy editor knows about the confusion in deciding whether the phrase is the object of the preposition or an infinitive phrase, what should they do?

When what is written originally is a gerund, there should not be any problem. The author knew what they had written.

When what follows is an infinitive phrase, the copy editor can try and juxtapose the phrase as introductory and check if it still makes sense. If yes, leave it; otherwise, be wise.

Oh No, Mr Venn, Not Again

We copy editors are always on the lookout for information. Not as aggressive as Google, which accesses and stores every bit of information that comes its way (quite literally), copy editors look out for information that they need. It could be the spelling or usage of a word, checking facts, certain styles specific to the task at hand, or getting the copyright for previously published material. Like a seasoned detective who intuitively knows where to fix his proverbial lens, a veteran in copyediting knows where to look for the information.

Whereas the source of information for the Zillion needs of the copy editor are as big as the size of the needs, l would limit myself in this post to the very basic sources – style sheets, house styles, and style guides.

Style guides are comprehensive — really comprehensive. They detail every element related to typesetting. Style guides do not dictate styles; they provide various ways of styling. They compare and contrast the different styles and let us make informed decisions. They are like the holy religious books that tell us about the various things in life. They may not provide you readymade solutions to the specific problem at hand, but will certainly prepare us to find a solution. (Like the religious gurus that help us get clarity on a specific problem, there are editing gurus associated with these house styles offering editing advice.)

Interesting to note is the fact that many of styles guides were not created with the intention of creating a style guide. What started as an in-house style sheet, with regular addition of information, became what they are today.

Worthy of mention are Chicago Manual of Style, Oxford Guide to Style, ACS style Guide by the American Chemical Society, and Associated Press Style Guide.

Style sheets are the closest to any project. Be it a journal, a book, or a magazine, styles sheet talk about the minutest details of the work. They may tell you which spelling to follow, the punctuation style, how a particular query to the author or editor is worded. They specify the layout. They explain how tables are formatted, aligned, and placed on a page. Style sheets even dictate the page length of certain article types. In cases of journal publishing and book series, the style sheets are provided by the publisher. Book editing almost always expects the copy editor to create a style sheet for the book under editing. These copy editor-created style sheets are usually preserved and used when future revised editions are published.

House styles were born out of the necessity of publishers to have a comprehensive style guide for themselves but not as comprehensive as the style guides while not being too specific.

Going back to our initial discussion on seeking information, the copy editor is always inundated with various authentic sources of information. Of course the Internet brings in a pack of self-styled editing gurus whose advice should normally be thrown into the dustbin.

Mr Venn's wisdom on the three significant sources of reference
Mr Venn’s wisdom on the three significant sources of reference

Specifically, when the copy editor is confronted with a need to refer for a style advice, what should they do? This is where Mr Venn appears from thin air and shares with us his wisdom about choosing a relevant work of reference. The three choices in front of us present themselves as perfect subsets as shown in the figure. Information should be sought inside out in this construction. Because style sheets are the closest to the work at hand, the copy editor’s first point of reference is normally the style sheet. If the information sought is not available there, they move on to search the house style. If the information is still not available, then it’s time to turn to the style guides. Rarely do we encounter a situation when none of the three works offer a solution to us, in which case the best is to write to the editor at the publishing house, who can and will provide advice.

A (repeated) note of warning: Referring to the Internet in general and taking whatever advice that comes across is injurious to the copy editor’s health.

Happy referring.

Thank you, Team Journalist

Since I started writing this blog I’ve been using the Journalist theme. Till this morning, that is. Somehow, I have had this feeling of moving on to a different theme, and was looking for one that would meet my expectations. A simple theme, without much of distractions, lovely fonts, and some nice colors. Of course, the Journalist theme scored as far as display elements are considered. There were big quotes with indents that set off the display elements. The titles and headings were of serif fonts, to my liking. However, the new theme, Big Brother, has a lovely font for the body – gentium basic. With some comparisons, and largely going by the heart, I decided to move on with the Big Brother. The title and the headings are still sans serif, but I think I can change them with the upgraded version (and I don’t think I will do it any sooner).

So, thank you Team Journalist, for your wonderful support so far. Hi, Big Brother, let’s work together.