If you think of bad writing, sloppy writing, careless writing — whatever — as the blemish on the face of the publishing world, then copy editors would be the “acne treatments” that try to heal or at least “pretty up” that blemish.
Pretty lame analogy, I guess. You might also consider the copy editor to be the “second line of defense” against writing chaos, just behind the proofreader, as it moves toward publication. Point of fact: I have seen the term spelled as either “copyeditor” or “copy editor,” and I do not know which (if either) is “correct.” Odd, when you consider that copy editors obsess about just such details.
In the typical publishing process — this is a very general, very broad look at the steps in the sequence — a manuscript goes from the author to a proofreader, then a copy editor, then a technical editor. At that point it is deemed perfect and ready to get into the pre-press process. Well, as I said, that’s a very generalized, very rough description of the sequence. Most probably, large book publishing houses as well as most magazines don’t employ proofreaders any more. They leave the proofreading up to the copy editor. (My wife, Shirley, earns a good share of our income as a freelance proofreader, filling the gap that many editors realize exists even when publishers have lost the vision.)
As you can see, then, the copy editor is the person who does much of the fact checking, obsesses over spelling, grammar, punctuation, word usage, typos, and all the rest of the mechanics. In addition, a good copy editor will either suggest or do small amounts of rewriting to “clean up” obvious problems in a manuscript. This is sacred ground on the part of writers and technical editors, but it is done in some situations. For example, when I was a newspaper copy editor, there would be times on deadline when I would very discreetly rewrite a sentence or paragraph, flagging it for the news editor’s attention to discuss with the reporter if there was time.
So — I no longer keep in close touch with the publishing industry, so I have no idea of the prevalence of copy editing jobs out there. As a writer and a reader, I cringe at published typos and outright factual errors I see sometimes in newspapers, magazines, and books. If publishers are no longer hiring good copy editors and proofreaders, it is a great loss for the reading public.
Anyone out there a copy editor? Proofreader? Leave a comment and inform us.