Tuesday, January 16, 2007


What degree of occupational/moral responsibility should/do copy editors have for the finished work? On the occupational end: what if Idiscover a work is irredeemably beneath its publications standards? Do I edit as well as I can, but let it go? Or is it the my responsibility to blow the whistle?

The moral end interests me more,. If I copy edit something morally reprehensible, or at least irresponsible, am I morally responsible for it? How much of the finished work is it fair to attribute to the copy editor? I see three options:

1) None
2) Just implemented edits
3) As much as the author

The copy editor's name doesn't go on the finished product. Does that mean a copy-editor shares no responsibility for the finished work, so long as the prose follows all appropriate rules of grammar and reads clearly? Or do you feel its more beneficial as a worker, and more moral, to think of myself as responsible for what appears on the page beyond that, because clarity and grammar are inseperable from content? How high do you think the stakes are when it comes to making writing clearer than it once was?

Sorry for the abstract and navel-gazing question. thanks

1 comment:

Pat said...

As with most human endeavors, copyediting involves and raises ethical questions. If you have a healthy conscience, you can't help but feel responsible for everything you work on, even if no one but you knows what you did on a particular task.

In my nearly fifteen years at MANOA, there have been a handful of times when I found a piece of writing so objectionable that I did little or no work on it. In one case, I found a story morally reprehensible, and in two others, I was repelled by what I felt were offensive stereotypes.

In the first case, I refused to do the copyediting, and in the other two, I suppressed my personal feelings and did the minimum: fixing grammatical and punctuation errors, etc.

I should add here that there will be times when you copyedit a piece of writing to the best of your abilities, and the author criticizes you for it and refuses to accept your editing. In this case, the acquisitions editor intervenes, and a compromise is worked out between the two of them. If you are told that your editing will not be used, you must accept it because the authorship does not belong to you.

There will also be those times when a poor manuscript is transformed into a work of art through skilled copyediting. In the MANOA office, this has happened several times. Frank Stewart, the head of our office, has taken incomprehensible or poor translations and turned them into publishable works. One of these is on my list of favorite MANOA pieces.

From his or her work, the copyeditor derives the psychic energy needed to continue. It is tedious, painstaking work, and the rewards must go beyond a paycheck in order for the copyeditor to practice his or her craft. Sometimes great satisfaction comes from simply saying, "No, I'm not going to work on that piece." Of course, you must give your reasons to the higher-ups, and you should be prepared to give a sound, rational defense of your decision. Once in a while, this will lead to a dialog between the acquisitions editor and the author that will result in a better piece.