Myth: Copy editors are walking dictionaries.

Sources summarize copy editing as making copy correct, complete, concise, clear and consistent — the five Cs, as the pros call them. It is often confused with either proofreading or developmental editing. You’d probably think that to be a successful copy editor, you’d have to love writing, or you’d need to be a grammar geek. But actually, the role goes beyond checking for subject-verb agreement and usage errors. So what does it actually take to be a copy editor?

Here, I try to list a number of misconceptions about copy editors and hopefully clarify what they actually do and what their role in the organization is. Some of these misconceptions are based on my experience, while others are from colleagues and notable posts by seasoned copy editors. We already mentioned that a journalism or English degree is not strictly necessary for a copy editor-wannabe and that organizations and institutions aside from newsrooms and publishing firms may benefit from having copy editors in their ranks. Now, here’s the third misconception we’re busting:

03 walking dictionary

Original image: “Scrabble at SLQ” by Sally Cummings on Flickr.
Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

3. Copy editors are walking dictionaries.

There is this widespread notion that editors and writers have to know the meaning of most, if not all, words. Language blogs estimate more than a thousand updates and  neologisms added to dictionaries every year (Merriam-Webster added more than 150 new words in its 2011 edition), and old words acquire new senses as time goes by, so I’m not sure anyone will be able to catch up on all the words and their meanings.

Whenever someone I know asks me what a word means, I bluntly tell him or her to look it up in the dictionary.*

Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been.
A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists by Tim Radford

Job ads don’t usually have a vocabulary level requirement. Some would say it’s implied or expected that copy editors should have superior vocabulary. But in my experience, I probably looked up at least three words in every five pages of the first technical manuscript I copyedited.

Copy editors should consult a dictionary and/or a thesaurus. That’s the best practice. We regard references like these as tools, and we use them just as often as a carpenter uses a hammer.

So, do you need to know the meaning of every word to be a copy editor? Do you have to be a walking dictionary?

No, it’s not a requirement, especially when you’re just starting out. It’s okay if you don’t know what a curmudgeon is or what a pugilist does on your first day on the job.  But having superior vocabulary is a big plus. If you know the proper use of most words, it will save you time looking them up in a dictionary.

There are specialty publications that would require their copy editors to be familiar with jargons and technical words. Years of experience on the job may lead to advanced vocabulary, but for beginners, especially in publications where the goal is to relay easy-to-understand information, average vocabulary can work.

What a copy editor should develop is an appreciation for precision. Although there are synonyms in the English language, a word would be more appropriate in certain constructions and context than others.

The bottom line is that copy editors are guardians of accuracy, conciseness and precision. When in doubt, they should double-check. A copy editor who consults references to ensure correct usage of a word is more likely to succeed than someone who arrogantly neglected to do so or someone who went ahead and revised the unfamiliar word.

*Editor’s Note: Another point worth exploring is that dictionaries and thesauri are more accessible now than before. This means high-level vocabulary is a possibility for everyone, and anyone who has access to the Internet has no excuse for not knowing what a particular word means.  This in turn shifts the responsibility of the copy editor to simply making sure the correct words are strung together.

How do you deal with unfamiliar phrases, words and usage?

Mark Hilaria is the deputy managing editor at SENCOR and serves in the editorial board of Project Chiron. This post is part of the “‘Good Writers Don’t Need Copy Editors’ and Other Myths” series,  edited by Kim Palanca and Adrian Claudio.

NEXT: Do copy editors catch and solve everything?

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