Who proofs the proofreaders?
October 6, 2010 7:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm a professional copy editor who has been blessed with an intern with good instincts and grammatical understanding, but needs to learn the techniques of the craft. Right now I'm just reviewing her work and discussing her mistakes/omissions as they arise, but I'd like to do more formalized instruction. Can anyone recommend a lesson plan?

She's got a copy of Chicago and the dictionary we use, but she doesn't have a good sense of when she needs to look something up to double-check to make sure what she assumes is right is, in fact, right. Also there are the little inside-baseball tricks: keeping track of name spellings and acronyms to make sure they're the same every time, checking the math, etc.

I took a copyediting course a long time ago and no longer have the exercises or materials. Where could I find some? Or any ideas on how to create my own?
posted by thinkingwoman to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a prof'l c/e myself, and I'm not entirely sure these things can be taught. In my view, about 90 percent of it is intuition. You say your intern has good instincts, though, so maybe it's just a matter of time.

Before I became an infallible expert, I learned a lot by reviewing other copy editors' work. If Jane Redpencil deleted a comma--why? When Joe Emdash changed "it only cost a dime" to "it cost only a dime"--why? When editing English, why do we delete the diacritic from "Montréal"? Stuff like that.

Lesson plans I can't help with, but I know NYU has or had a publishing certificate program that, if memory serves, had a copy editing course. Perhaps a visit to NYU.edu would turn it up.
posted by scratch at 7:58 PM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

What type of documents/publications is she usually checking? Is Chicago what you always use, or do you switch between styles on occasion? Do you have any quirks for your office (stuff that's specific to your field, for example, or something you use that's not generally accepted by Chicago but you do it anyway because it works for you)?

My favorite page of the AP Stylebook is the cheat sheet. Just knowing how to mark up a page properly is one of the most handy things I've learned.
posted by Madamina at 8:00 PM on October 6, 2010

She's got a copy of Chicago and the dictionary we use, but she doesn't have a good sense of when she needs to look something up to double-check to make sure what she assumes is right is, in fact, right.

One of the biggest things I had to learn: Always check. You might think you know the correct spelling, but so do your writers—and most often, they're wrong. (Especially when you're working with an internally inconsistent monstrosity like, say, Webster's New World College Dictionary. And especially when your writers don't own a copy of—or simply refuse to consult—whichever dictionary you're using.) Always check.

To get good at checking things fast, she just has to do it a lot; once she gets used to flipping to the right spot in a print dictionary, for instance, it'll become second nature. Even better, help her make herself an awesome set of Firefox search bookmarks, and fact-checking (and looking stuff up in online style guides and dictionaries) will become like an extension of her brain.
posted by limeonaire at 8:36 PM on October 6, 2010

Also, this is huge: Part of copy-editing/proofreading is knowing the correct spelling of proper nouns—and that's a fact-checking thing. You have to look up the facts when it comes to spelling. She can't assume she knows those, either, even if she's familiar with the subject area or region, especially because people often have shorthand for places that's just completely not factual (an example where I live: everyone calls Grand Boulevard "Grand Avenue," and Nordstrom "Nordstrom's").
posted by limeonaire at 8:38 PM on October 6, 2010

Do you have an in-house style manual? If so, perhaps she could start to put one together based on your particular needs. Maybe she could start making a list of style quirks as she learns them from your corrections?

The most important thing you can teach her is how to distinguish between what you know and what you should look up (hint: almost everything).

A few ideas for lessons:
- hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and the associated quirks of compound adjectives
- Words That Are Secretly Proper (Dumpster*, Popsicle, Sheetrock, Frisbee, Pilates**). You won't be able to mention all of them, but if you throw enough trademarks and such out at her, you'll freak her out about how incorrectly almost everybody uses them and inspire her to look everything up.
-Words and phrases everyone screws up: begs the question, nonplussed, supersede (often spelled "supercede"), foreword/forward, plus the ones that you correct every.single.time they cross your desk
-The subjunctive tense (and associated terror and pity)
-Singular or plural? None, each, nothing, some, neither, either, etc.

Make sure she understands the concept of house style, that grammar and punctuation can't be objectively correct or incorrect; they can only conform or not conform to the house style. The book that really cemented this idea for me was Bill Walsh's Lapsing Into a Comma.

*I feel the trademark "Dumpster" is not being defended by its trademark holder and should therefore become generic, but I have had little success in convincing others of this.
**AP lowercases "Pilates," but since it's named after a dude, Joseph Pilates, I think they're wrong.

posted by purpleclover at 9:20 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

She might enjoy The Subversive Copy Editor.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:39 PM on October 6, 2010

Former professional copy writer ... I always found it really useful to have discussions about why the style was what it was. Why is it FBI and not F.B.I.? When talking about race, why is there a difference between black and Black and African American and African-American? The answer is not "because."

Well, at least not all the time ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:20 PM on October 6, 2010

When I first started as a copyeditor, I didn't have anyone mentoring me (they just threw me into the deep end!), so I learned to always check. That's something I've since drilled into the people I've mentored. You think you know how to spell $word? Check. You think you know what Chicago says about the semicolon? Check.

What also came in handy for me, and got me used to keeping track of acronyms, character names, place names, etc., was making a style sheet for everything. At that point, I was working on only novels, but I've learned it holds true across all things that need to be copyedited that a style sheet is invaluable. I even have one for the newsletter that I edit three times a year for my best friend's company, because there's no way I'm going to remember from four months before whether he wants a capital letter or a lowercase letter after a colon. That's my number one suggestion -- a style sheet for everything the intern touches, and even some stuff that is maybe designed (by you) to be kind of confusing or complicated.
posted by shamash at 12:29 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Make posters of certain things that always come up or that cause particular difficulty in your office and stick them up on the wall in front of her. Be sure the type is large and plain enough to read from her normal sitting position. This will help her learn and, for certain things, will reduce looking up to looking up.
posted by pracowity at 1:33 AM on October 7, 2010

Echoing what others have said: one of the most important skills is self-awareness -- learning to recognize even the tiniest most niggling spark of uncertainty when it crops up in your mind. Whenever that happens, check, check, check.

The single most useful book I read in training to be a c/e was The Copyeditor's Handbook. I did take a couple of "real" copyediting courses after that, but they didn't teach me much I hadn't already learned from the book.
posted by stuck on an island at 1:36 AM on October 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: THanks for all the book recommendations.

I realize what I meant to ask was if there were course materials available out there in the wild--especially a good resource for worksheets, because I just don't have the time to generate my own (this is why I now have an intern!). She's a smart, capable kid and wants to learn, I just need to figure out how to teach her!

Oh, also, our office is virtual and I communicate with my intern via email.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:25 AM on October 7, 2010

Instincts are great, but you need to be 100% certain of them--which often means backing them up with facts.

Anecdote time: I had a professor who liked to give us a final project at the end of each semester, wherein we'd edit each others' final papers and publish them into a book. I had the word "symbolistic" in my paper title; one of my well-meaning classmates changed it to "symbolic" just before press time. I really did mean "symbolistic"--she was just too arrogant in her instincts to double check.
posted by litnerd at 5:45 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Copyediting & Proofreading for Dummies has pages with errors, and then a page with corrections (using proper marks). The book recommends a heavy hand, but as long as you're not trying to teach her to copyedit novels, it should be a decent resource for her.

My other suggestion is that instead of giving her worksheets and stuff, why not give her what you're copyediting? Let her copyedit several pages while you're copyediting the same pages, and then check her work and let her look at yours. That's how I taught my interns to do it when I worked at a publisher (and it's also one of the things I did with my assistant when I was teaching her how to line edit novels).
posted by shamash at 9:56 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I took a class with Amy Einsohn -- you can take the class by mail, too. I highly recommend Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook, too -- it has tests and examples throughout.

If you don't have an in-house style guide, take a look at some other ones and think about compiling one. Here's San Diego State's.
posted by vickyverky at 1:18 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should encourage her to create a stylesheet (for the house or per project) if she doesn't do that already. The act of creating it makes it more useful as you go.

The owner of the company i work for (I work in a different department so this isn't as self serving as it may appear) does editing training workshops for corporate non-editors, but there's solid information for anyone in his books. His name is Bruce Ross-Larson and he's written about six books, the most handy of which is "Edit Yourself." I bought copies for everyone who worked for me when i was training college students to edit in a volunteer job, and i think it helped. It's not directed at professional editors but it has good techniques in it.

There's also a website, clearwriter.com, but it's sort of fallen by the wayside in recent years. The books are good, though.
posted by kostia at 7:37 AM on October 11, 2010

If there's funding available to send your intern to the Basic Manuscript Editing course at the University of Chicago Graham School, that could be a worthwhile investment. I started my career as a copy editor after taking that class, having been an "instinctual," hobbyist editor all my life, and I think it was particularly helpful for developing my natural instincts into professional skills. The coursework is based on the Chicago Manual of Style, and it includes a variety of drills that not only focus on the key elements of writing that a copy editor needs to think about but also require the student to write down which section of the manual contains the applicable rule for each element. I found those helpful for both instilling the value and habit of looking up rules and helping me start to memorize the important section numbers.
That class is pricey, though, and I'm sure the teachers and the school don't give out the course materials for free. The one novel suggestion I have for a free source of practice material is to contact university presses and ask for copies of the editing tests that they give to applicants for copy editing and proofreading positions. The test I took when applying for a job at the University of Chicago Press was in fact very similar to those exercises that I did in the Graham School class.
posted by bigboggle at 5:59 PM on October 11, 2010

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