I’ve had the Quiche Moraine post on editing open in a browser tab for far too long, now, but it deserves a more prominent comment than just a link in the daily links dump. It really is an excellent presentation of the important role of editing:
Editing requires the strange ability to stand in the place of the audience and the author simultaneously. As an editor reads a piece, whether it be a story or a journal article, they have to understand what the author intended to say without losing track of not just what one individual reader will take away, but how the piece will come across to readers with varying experiences and levels of understanding. The outsider’s perspective shows them the weaknesses in the piece, while the insider’s perspective allows them to make suggestions for improvement that are consistent with the author’s intent.
Writers are closer to their material than anyone else can be. They had better be, or there’s no point in them writing it. This means that they know intimately how topic X and topic Y, or action B and action C, are connected. That’s great for the writing, but it creates a problem when writers are trying to evaluate what they’ve written. [...]
The average audience member, on the other hand, not only doesn’t know what the author was intending but doesn’t care. They’re just not that invested in the work. How much effort are they going to be willing to put in to help an author clarify their meaning when they can just move on and read something else? If they can be bothered to comment about a problem, they’ll generally pick the low-hanging fruit-grammar and spelling. [...]
[T]he author needs someone on their side with the proper distance from the writing to see it clearly. However, this isn’t enough, or any friend would be able to fill the role. An editor needs to go beyond wanting an author to succeed. They have to be able to set aside their own goals for a piece in favor of the author’s, let the author’s style overwhelm their own while they work. And they have to do this while still keeping the needs of the audience(s) in mind.
Along the way, the post includes a link to a terrific description of the copyediting process. Having just sent back the copyedited pages of my book-in-production, I have a new appreciation of the work copyedtors do– the copyeditor found and fixed problems with consistent terminology and grammar that I had tried to find and fix myself. And I know that what I sent in was relatively clean compared to the manuscripts sent in by some well-known fiction authors.
Of course, if you want to know why copyediting matters, the easiest way to do it would be to spend a week reading nothing but Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein. They’re both really smart, but whatever they’re teaching at Harvard these days obviously does not include proofreading your own work, because they can’t get through two posts without a distracting typo that either changes the meaning of a sentence, or just renders it gibberish.