Copy editing into the future

A couple of days ago, I received a desperate, all-caps text message from my younger sister asking for help with proofreading her First Big High School Essay. In all of my sisterly benevolence (and maybe a genetic capacity for procrastination), I obliged to look over the paper. Screen to screen, connecting Minnesota to California, I ran through the text to correct her grammar and to comment on content. Going through her composition, bossy older sibling that I am, I messaged her to follow along with my corrections so she would know what I was doing and why. Limited to her enthusiastic “OK” and the lack of movement of her cursor, I’m guessing she probably didn’t. Regardless, she said thanks, so I didn’t push it.

Today at The Daily Californian, the editing process is conducted in a similar way, limited to our WordPress interface. Brackets and asterisks constitute the majority of our grammatical markings and are almost always limited to the eyes of members of the night department. But pre-digital copy editing, which is certainly still done, has a markedly different editorial process.

Manually edited pieces are colorful compositions of ink and pen, a working conversation between editor and editee. Corrections and suggestions function in a more visceral way when physically present on the page. They also provide for more visible evidence of what needs to be changed; an author can more easily see that “its” should be an “it’s.”

There is also a whole lexicon of editing marks that exists to be used for manual copy editing. Most marks are fairly self-explanatory — the symbol for an em dash is literally an “M” with a dash and  “I”over it — but others take some know-how to understand their use. For example, the mark “to delete” is an elegant loop de loop, and “to bold” a phrase is a wavy line. Each has its place in the editing process and a specific meaning.

Obviously, in the fast paced environment at the Daily Cal, editing needs to be timely. Online editing is efficient and allows for quicker fact-checking than by hand. But the dialogue that exists between author and editor on the page is lost when all editing occurs online.

Typing, autocorrect and Google searches have all undeniably changed the way we go about grammar in the last few decades, and online copy editing follows this trend toward the technological. But it begs the question of what we lose when we put away the pen and the language of copy editing starts to fade. And most importantly — will my sister ever really learn when to use a semicolon instead of a comma?

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].