Reading like a Copy Editor

For eighteen years I copyedited a journal about the history of economics. Because of that, most people assumed that I learned a lot about the history of economics. I did--but not nearly as much as one might expect. To understand why, one must understand how a copyeditor reads. A copyeditor does not read like a normal person. A normal person reads to learn about a subject. In contrast, a copyeditor doesn't read as much as encounter: for a copyeditor, a text presents an overwhelming number of decisions to be made. Rather than reading for content, a copyeditor is sensitive to and is preoccupied with a whole thicket of issues that have little to do with the substance of a text. Let me give an example.

I begin a copyediting job, and the very first sentence I encounter reads as follows:

When Baruch Spinoza’s (1632–77) Tractatus theologico-politicus (‘Theological-Political Treatise’) appeared in late 1669 or early 1670, immediate reactions to it were hostile, and the work was soon condemned by members of the Dutch Reformed Church.

This sentence alone confronts a good copyeditor with several questions. Is Spinoza's name spelled correctly? Are his dates correct? Are the dates rendered as they should be? Is it OK to put someone's dates after a possessive? How should the Latin title of Spinoza's work be capitalized? Is the title accurate? Is the English translation of the title necessary, and if so, how should it be rendered? Should it appear in quotation marks? Should it be capitalized as it is? What about the reference to the Dutch Reformed Church? Should it be capitalized as it is? Is its named rendered correctly?

The answers to some of those questions will be determined by the publisher's house style. House style is the set of rules that determine such things as how inclusive dates are presented and how to capitalize the Latin title of a work. Should Spinoza's dates be 1632-77, or should they be 1632-1677? Should the title be Tractatus theologico-politicus, or should it be Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

With all those questions and more to deal with, no wonder a copyeditor fails to register or remember the substance of an article!