Value-added editing

I try to describe myself as a “value-added” copy editor, and editor in general. “Value-added” is a buzz phrase, but it has meaning if only because the term “copy editor” has lost much of its meaning.

Copy editors are often unemployed and copy editing no longer a full job description. Their valuealways difficult to measure — is noticed posthumously, after publications cut their staffs, but even then, they are memorialized by silly misspellings, cringe- or laugh-inspiring corrections — the work of nags and taskmasters. There’s even the idea that editing is obsolete, which is a misconception borne of a correct notion carried too far: that old media clung to its old ways at the expense of its welfare, audience and revenue.

So why “value-added”? Because when I copy-edit, ideally, I’m not just the one pointing out mistakes, dampening enthusiasm, wit and energy in the writing for the sake of a “rule,” or changing tone to match what I want it to say. This doesn’t mean I don’t enforce the agreed-upon style, work to fix poor writing and incorrect facts, and catch typos. It simply means that I’m not just the person saying, “No,” in red ink.

It means I can make suggestions to improve the text and the ideas behind it — ideally, in the tone of the author. It means, on long-term assignments, becoming knowledgeable about the subject matter beyond which words are spelled which way. It means gaining a mastery of the technology, working with other parties and being involved without overstepping my bounds.

This sounds obvious, and it’s also vague. But it’s the sort of big-picture, long-term thinking that copy editing is no longer associated with. It’s the type of thinking — and ambition — that copy editors are going to have to add to their arsenals if they wish to uplift their profession. If we’re successful, “value-added” may one day again be unnecessary as a modifier