Critical-thinking copyediting

Critical-thinking copyediting

July 29, 2021 By Christine Steele Conferences

I have visited the book sale table at every ACES conference way more than I should. (After all, I’m a book collector, not a book hoarder!) Each year there are new and old selections on the table, and some are written by conference attendees. One would always make a repeat appearance, but I thought it didn’t apply to me: Strategic Copy Editing by John Russial.

I met John at ACES, and he’s a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. The book seemed more for newspaper editors than for corporate copyeditors like me, so I thought I didn’t need it.

Boy, was I wrong. This is now one of my favorite books, and it applies to all copyeditors. Of course there are newspaper references; replace them with client or company, and it applies just the same.

Copyediting involves critical thinking, and it’s hard to teach that to my students. I’ve had a few discussions lately with fellow instructors about how we can help students be better thinkers as they review copy. It is hard to convey in an online class, but the word strategic came to mind, so I bought the book.

I was so motivated by the readings, I emailed the author. He shared this about the title: 

"I used the word strategic in the book title because I’ve always thought editing was about more than nuts and bolts. It involved a way of thinking about the job and its purpose, and it also involved relationships, which can be as important in a publication’s environment as good word skills. To be honest, it’s probably as much tactics as strategy, but if I’d called it Tactical Copy Editing, it would have sounded more like a war zone (which admittedly it sometimes was)."

Russial states his philosophy on copyediting in the introduction, and it defines exactly what I find challenging to teach. He says, “The nature of the work copy editors do is not well understood.” He reiterates that skill in the mechanics of copyediting (finding typos and errors in spelling, grammar, usage, and style) is a necessary requirement for good copyediting, but there is more to the profession. According to Russial, a copyeditor must wear many hats, for example:

Editing is not about nitpicking and finding mistakes—it is about making choices.

Editing is about critical thinking. 

Editing is about working together and respecting others.

Editing is about balancing perfection and pragmatism.

Editing is about ethics.

Even if you’re not in journalism, consider adding Strategic Copy Editing to your bookshelf to help you become a more critical-thinking editor. A good copyeditor is a good reader, so it’s good to be a “book collector,” right?

Note: I followed The Chicago Manual of Style and spelled copyediting and copyeditor as one word. The author followed the AP Stylebook and spelled both as two words.

This article was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash.

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