Are Copy Editors Bullies?


Chase bank is bullying me.

The other day I received a threatening letter informing me that unless I notify them by December 15, they will begin mailing me “offers” for their products and services in nine (9!)  categories, including auto financing (I don’t have a car), education (done that), mortgage (I’m set), and a raft of others. From Googling the return envelope’s address, I’m convinced the letter is authentic.

In order to prevent Chase from blanket-bombing my mailbox, I am obliged to actively opt out. If I change addresses, I will need to “renew” all of my “mailing options.” Should I try to foil their plot by not changing addresses, my options will “expire” in five years, requiring another “renewal.”

Imagine if every company you had never done business with required you to opt out of their junk mailings. Chase is bullying me, and I am powerless to stop them. Every time I think about it, my blood boils. Which brings me to the actual topic of this post:

This is the kind of frustration I hear from writers who are being copy-edited.

Fortunately for writers, however, most copy editors are not bullies, and writers have more power than they realize. Although Chase has me over a barrel, perhaps I can give writers some aid and advice for dealing with a copy editor who may seem to be holding their work hostage.

  • If you feel your teeth grinding as you review the editing of your work, remember that your review is an opportunity for negotiation. Your copy editor probably indicated as much in her cover letter. She is expecting to go another round.*
  • Allow for the possibility that editing you disagree with is not incompetent. Before you engage in insults and complaints, keep in mind that (a) you may be ignorant of your publisher’s house style, and that (b) if you haven’t consulted a grammar or style handbook since you were in school, things change.
  • When you are certain that an edit is misguided, grant that your editor was trying to fix a problem. Instead of simply stetting the original, figure out what was wrong with it and offer an alternative fix.
  • If you are being edited by a neophyte, he might not have much practice in breaking rules when it makes sense to do so. Editors at some houses have limited authority to depart from house style. If your reasonable requests are resisted, ask the editor to consult a supervisor.
  • Don’t go over the copy editor’s head without first asking him to explain the editing. Now and then, I must make a time-consuming review of a manuscript because an author complains, and it rarely turns out that the level of complaint is justified. What often happens is that the writer misunderstands some aspect of the editing and loses confidence  in the editor. This then colors the writer’s response to all the editing.
  • Finally, you can help prevent misguided editing of your copy in the first place. Few specialist writers have copy editors who are trained at the same level in that field, so if you use obscure terms or jargon not found in a dictionary or unusual spellings that you don’t want changed, supply a list with the manuscript.

In short, although I can’t deny that bad editing happens, there is almost always recourse. Starting with the assumption that you can work things out is the best way to get results.

Unless you’re dealing with Chase bank.


*An example: when I started writing for the Lingua Franca, I was told that The Chronicle couldn’t handle footnotes. If you aren’t reading this, we’re still negotiating.

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Readers may send Carol questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing. Write to her at (Please ask questions about Chicago style here.)



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