Sometimes I find reading the online comments about a news story more interesting than the story itself. If the story is political, I can be fairly sure that some people will be irate, some rude, some passionate. It’s also likely, especially when a discussion gets heated, that a comment will focus on the writer’s or a previous commenter’s inability to “write,” as evidenced in his or her misspelling of “flagrant” or placement of a preposition at the end of a sentence, and thus that person’s lack of ability to think, to reason logically. All further consideration can be dismissed now that other readers know that the person misuses the English language.
Typical arguments about why books need to be copyedited often focus on situations like this, though generally to a lesser extreme than the radicals espousing opinions in online comments. The book’s end user must be assured that the writer knows what he or she is writing about. Good copyediting means that readers are more likely to take the author seriously and less likely to be distracted by annoying misspellings and grammar errors, or, more seriously, incomprehensible sentences.
But copyediting is not just about the end reader. In fact, as an editor, I often think about how most readers probably don’t care much about the minutia that copyeditors can sometimes hyperventilate about. Few readers probably notice that a series comma is missing, unless that missing comma creates misreading or ambiguity, or that the number 3 was not spelled out.
Copyediting is in part about making the process of producing a book run smoothly and efficiently. That’s why publishers have style manuals. Not just one person handles a given work at a press. There are often multiple editors. There are typesetters. There are printers. There are designers. There are e-book vendors. When a question arises about where to break a word at the end of a line or whether a certain word in the title should be capitalized, if everyone at the publisher (and its affiliates) is following the same rule book, fewer questions need be asked and inconsistencies (and thus errors as well) are more likely to be caught. Less time need be spent establishing what need be done in a given specific circumstance.
The exceptions to the use of style manuals prove this. On rare occasions, I’ve dealt with authors who have insisted on abiding by their own idiosyncratic style. A few exceptions to house rules, especially when consistently implemented, are generally not a problem, but when the author’s rules seem to lack coherence, problems arise all the way down the line. The proofreader no longer has a comprehensive guide to be able to know when something is in error and now must query the author regarding each thing he or she might be tempted to “correct.” The copywriter no longer can be sure how to spell or whether to capitalize certain terms in the catalog or on the book jacket. And reviewers and scholars have similar problems when writing about the ideas discussed in the work.
To be sure, while the end user might notice these idiosyncrasies as well, many probably won’t care. Others might choose to do as those annoying commenters do online and dismiss the writer’s work based not on the substance of the author’s argument but on the manner in which it is presented. As I’m noting here, however, copyediting is not just about this final audience; it is also about ensuring that the production and marketing of the book runs smoothly, quickly, and efficiently. The more purposely odd a book is, the more time consuming it becomes for those involved in its creation.
Jon Davies is assistant director for editorial, design, and production at UGA Press.