It’s all fun and games until someone loses a comma.
Copyediting mainly focuses on the more technical aspects of writing: the commas, periods, apostrophes, syntax, conjunctions, etc. It’s about making the words say what they’re supposed to say without any grammatical or punctuation errors that would be off-putting to the reader or just plain wrong. It’s a system that works and works well if you’re good at your job. Where it can go a bit pear-shaped is when you focus too much on the minutia and forget about the big picture.
There’s a wonderful phrase for this: unable to see the forest for the trees. It happens when you concentrate only on the individual details (spelling mistakes, for example) and forget about the actual meaning of the text.
To be fair, that’s part of a copyeditor’s job. They’re not developmental or line editors, who have to also analyze voice, style, readability, and how the story moves forward, sometimes making suggestions for plot, characters, themes, symbolism, pacing, and overall coherency. But it’s important to keep all these things in mind.
When copyediting, you can get so caught up in determining if a comma should go here or there, that you can actually end up missing more important errors or even making your own. The Chicago and AP style guides are important to follow, but they’re not the end-all and be-all of writing. Language is meant to be flexible, and to change according to society, as well as an author’s personal style.
As a copyeditor, you need to know when a possible error should be corrected according to the “rules”, or when it should slide in favor of readability and clarity. Would removing that comma better suit the story? Does the characterization or dialogue still make sense? Don’t forget who you’re actually proofing for: the readers. Carol Fisher Saller talks a little about this in her book, The Subversive Copy Editor (which I say with all the confidence of someone who only flipped through it after buying it for $.75 at a used bookstore).
In any case, remember why you probably got into this profession in the first place: for the love of reading. When proofing a text, make sure that that love will be able to shine through, whether you’re editing a novel or a technical manual on beekeeping. It should be correct and readable, yes, but also enjoyable.
Do you agree with this topic? Find my assertions debatable? Sound off in the comments!