Copyeditors’ sixth sense —build it now

January 1, 2019 By Adrienne Montgomerie

Beyond the style guides and dictionaries, beyond macros and spell check, beyond checklists and looking up every single thing, the best copyeditor has honed a sixth sense that tells her when something just doesn’t sound right.

When the quote sounds off, when the numbers don’t seem to add up, when a fact sounds unlikely… she gets a tingle that makes her mouse-hand hover.


Can you develop this editorial sixth sense, or are you born with it? Some editors argue that you can’t teach this kind of editing, that you’ve either got it or you don’t. While there might be some gifted editors who are born with it, why would it not be a skill we can develop? Painting is taught in classes everywhere. Running is taught. Even breathing is taught.

Heck, virtuoso musicians even take master classes.

With some tips, coaching, and lots of practice, we are confident that you can build this useful sense. Today we start exploring how you can develop the editorial sixth sense.


In the beginning, a new editor must simply look up everything.

Lists can’t be punctuated that way? Maybe they can, in the style this house is following. Look it up.

Facts look unlikely? A match head that I can extinguish with my fingertips can’t possibly reach 500 °C! Look it up.

Practise be spelled with an S? Look it up.

Know something to be wrong for certain? Look it up. (My certainties have been adjusted several times.)

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash


Take in everything: read, watch TV, listen to music, see the sights. Keep up with the world at large, don’t get stuck in classics, favorites, or the familiar.

Play games: trivia, Scrabble, spelling bees. New games, old games, games the kids around you make up.

Be curious: talk to people, ask them about subjects they’re enthusiastic about. Read random news items, and ask questions about them. (This comes in handy in more ways that we’ll explore in the next post.)

All of these activities broaden your horizons, expose you to subjects you’re not naturally drawn to. Having had exposure will attune you to related facts in the copy on your desktop. You’ll have honed your senses and, as a lucky bonus, you get a life!

This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website, October 26, 2015.

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