The Light Copyedit: The Hippocratic Oath of Editing

After almost three terms as the editorial assistant for Ooligan Press, I have become accustomed to the compulsory blank stare that results from hearing the term “light copyedit” when discussing blog posts and the importance of maintaining an author’s voice and intent. For some floaters, or volunteer editors, this glazed-over expression is a sign of disinterest as they take refuge in their happy place. (My happy place is sitting on my couch, binging on Netflix with a never-ending plate of donuts on my lap.) For others, it’s a coping mechanism to hide from the horror that is the English language, where rules don’t always apply and walking the line between degrees of editing can feel impossible. To help myself and my invaluable floaters, I have developed a list of questions to honor the Four Cs and do no harm.

    1. Is the sentence technically grammatically correct? Everyone has probably had the experience of editing a friend’s paper and rephrasing the sentences regardless of the grammar. You just can’t help yourself, altering a word here and a phrase there until it sounds better and reads smoother. Even so, the goal of a light copyedit is to correct grammar and punctuation that is unequivocally wrong—not necessarily to fix what sounds or looks awkward. Therefore, if the sentence is grammatically correct, you might consider leaving it alone.
    2. Is the sentence structure and phrasing so awkward that it will confuse the reader, even if it’s grammatically correct? Yeah, yeah. I’m backtracking a little, but there are always exceptions. There will be times when you’ve done the bare minimum and corrected any outright grammatical mistakes, yet the structure and phrasing of the sentence is so awkward that the meaning becomes obscured. When awkward becomes confusing, it’s time to revise the sentence—even if the writing abides by the rules of grammar and punctuation.
    3. If I’m going to make a change, is my solution the least invasive, or is there another solution that would result in fewer changes? This string of questions is fairly self-explanatory, but if you’re going to make a revision to the structure or phrasing of a sentence, consider every possibility. Sometimes the second half of a sentence might make more sense at the beginning of a sentence. And sometimes a confusing line can be improved by replacing a word with something that is more suitable to the context or closer to what the author was trying to say. Don’t settle on the quickest solution; instead, determine a revision based on how harmful it will be to the author’s voice and intent.
    4. Lastly, query the author if a significant change is necessary. You’ll notice that this last item is a statement, not a question. If you are going to alter a sentence or phrase, or even a notable word that is used frequently, write a short note to the author. Briefly, but kindly, explain why the change is imperative to their work and offer solutions when possible, or ask questions if you’re legitimately confused. What’s considered significant or insignificant is almost entirely subjective, but if you can look at a piece of writing as a whole, you can evaluate the effect of your proposed change. You will quickly realize when it’s worth freaking out an author over a revision and when it’s best to show a change without making a fuss.

Remember: do no harm.
Some of you loyal readers may have noticed that a blog post was briefly taken down and reposted at the beginning of last week. You also may have noticed some glaring copyediting mistakes in the earlier version. This happened after I ignored a cardinal rule: always give yourself time to step away from a project and come back with fresh eyes. Rarely will every error be discovered the first time through, so take a break if you’re feeling mentally or emotionally drained. The author, their work, the reader, and every participant involved deserve nothing less than 100 percent.

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