Copy editing: it’s about correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar, right? But while copy editors do all of those things, they’re also looking at every other element that goes to make up a readable piece of text: sense, rhythm, suitability, accuracy, even sound. Is a word repeated in a sentence or consecutive sentences, boringly and unnecessarily, or is the repetition there on purpose, for emphasis and rhythmic impact? Does word order make a phrase ambiguous? Is reticent used where reluctant would be better? Has the writer forgotten that a character was first mentioned as being aged eight in 1982 and now, five years later, is still only nine? Great writing doesn’t need a copy editor to be great—but with good copy editing, even weak or very mediocre writing can read smoothly and aspire to make sense.
There are plenty of good (and less good) books on common errors that writers and non-writers make all the time. Rather than reproduce what they’ve done already, I decided to pick a random, published periodical—one that could be well-written, badly written or somewhere in between—and look through it with a copy editor’s eye. As I was staying with friends in Long Island, New York, at the time—in “the Hamptons”—I went for one of the ubiquitous free glossy magazines that are piled up by the front door in every store there from Ralph Lauren to Starbucks. Most have very shiny, heavy paper stock and tons of photos of the more-or-less-beautiful people they hope their readers aspire to emulate. They also have quite a lot of copy, much of it about shopping but sometimes surprisingly wide-ranging.
Social Life magazine is edited out of New York City (though it’s mainly focused on the eastern end of Long Island). Besides the editor-in-chief, Devorah Rose, and the executive editor and three fashion and beauty editors, its masthead shows 12 features editors, none of whom has a title less grand than “senior editor.” Certainly no one is listed as even “assistant” or “associate,” let alone “copy editor.” Which could explain a lot. On the first editorial page after the contents of the July 4, 2011, issue, the publisher’s letter, apart from some excruciatingly awkward expressions (“To be able to publish without repression is the best luxury”), yielded an extra space inside a word in the fourth line—“America ’s freedom of the press”—as well as two missing articles in one sentence—“This is the time and place to indulge in [the] simple joys that the Hamptons offer: [the] unmatched beauty of the ocean….”
On the next page, the editor-in-chief, in her letter, had been working the dictionary of quotations: in about 300 words she managed to cite Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, Alexander McQueen and, weirdly, Anthony Crosland, who was a quite important British politician in the 1960s and ’70s, and who I am certain no readers of Social Life—or even most people in Britain under the age of 40—have ever heard of. Perhaps the editor-in-chief hadn’t either; she certainly didn’t bother to identify him, which is another thing that a copy editor would have insisted on. Admirably, a lot of long foreign names, like Lamborghini and Christian Louboutin, were spelled correctly—luxury brands like these are Social Life’s bread and butter, after all—but the editor-in-chief’s dashes, which, according to the style of the rest of the magazine, should have been long “em” dashes like these (—), were sad, tiny little hyphens like these (-).
Shopping and f-ing up
Social Life’s shopping pages are edited by one Naila Chbib. In her opening subtitle (“deck” in magazine speak), she tells us that “Yigal Azrouël and Lacoste are the new stores to absolutely discover this summer in the Hamptons. Gloria Jewel, a longstanding boutique chain with different locations, is launching a great online platform to shop anywhere at any time.”
So, says the copy editor: What is “absolutely discovering”? Let’s say “various” rather than “different” locations; and shouldn’t it be “a great online platform for shopping anywhere at any time”? Naila’s deck on the next page includes “the Hamptons are seeing new stores opening”, followed immediately by “The Hamptons definitely offers a variety of great shopping for all.” In other words, “the Hamptons” morphs from plural to singular within 15 words. Which is it, asks the copy editor?
Following on Naila’s heels, senior editor Sean O’Connell has a piece on a bespoke men’s tailoring outfit named C. Oliver Custom—except that he instantly gets its name wrong by beginning his opening sentence with “C. Oliver Customs,” adding an extra s to the end of “Custom.” Senior editor Sean also seems unaware of the standard magazine convention of quoting interviewees and sources in the present tense: “‘For me that means the quality and individuality of the clothing I design cannot be ignored,’ Rosenblum stated with satisfaction.” It should be “states Rosenblum,” although why it can’t be a plain and simple “says” is something the writer should be explaining to a copy editor; not to mention that awful “with satisfaction” so clumsily tacked onto the end of the sentence.
Remember me to “Herold” Square
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. There’s socialite Coralie Charriol Paul’s paean to documentary films—full of laudable sentiments yet sprinkled with garbled sentences such as “Watching this film [Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine], one that spoke bluntly about America’s relationship with violence and widespread protection of gun control, made me sit up and take notice”—“protection of gun control”? Say what? That one certainly made me sit up and take notice. There’s the ed-in-chief’s piece on a cover-girl starlet whose first name is spelled “AnnaLynne” on the cover but “Annalynne” throughout the article inside. Oh, and the article on the Pratt Institute art and design school in Brooklyn that mentions the windows at Macy’s in “Herold Square.”
Still, while we copy editors labor on, ignored and forgotten, we can take heart as we recall the immortal words of the publisher of Social Life magazine: “To be able to publish without repression is the best luxury.”