A great deal of copy editing is subjective, and you can get hung up for hours on a single comma placement.
Copy editing and proofreading are different from line editing and developmental editing in that they’re more straightforward: there are specific rules and guidelines that you, as the editor, are supposed to make sure are being followed. And usually, all you gotta do is glance through the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style to check that that hyphen or semicolon is actually supposed to be there.
But punctuation, simple as it seems, can change the entire meaning of a sentence. We all know of the infamous “Let’s eat Gramma” gaff, but in some cases, it can cost a company millions of dollars. Some people overcompensate, adding unnecessary commas and sentence breaks in an effort to not be misunderstood. Luckily, readers are typically pretty smart people and don’t really need you to put three ellipses in a row to understand that a character is being contemplative (that sort of characterization shouldn’t be dependent upon punctuation, anyway). And let’s face it: most people just aren’t going to notice the odd dangling modifier or split comma.
Where does that leave the hard-working copy editor?
I’m not suggesting that you half-ass your assignments: you should definitely all you can to make sure the content is clear and correct. But I argue that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect implies that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a piece of writing, and I dare say that such a thing has never existed. There will always be people arguing for or against inclusion of this or that type of punctuation (*cough*Oxfordcomma*cough*), spellings vary from region to country (colour, anyone?), and even grammar doesn’t have to be completely dictionary accurate, especially when dealing with the vernacular. Basically, you can’t win — but you can still absolutely do your best, which is why styleguides are so important and why most publications swear by them: it’s impossible to adhere to every contradictory rule (by its nature), so “these are the rules we’re sticking to,” they say. And obviously, that’s the job of us copy editors and proofreaders.
So, what do I mean by “good enough”? I’m saying that you shouldn’t spend hours on a 500-word blog post, debating on whether a sentence would make more sense if you put a comma before a conjunction. If the meaning isn’t changed, if the author’s intent is still clear, then, well . . . it kinda doesn’t matter. One solution is just leave a comment or email the writer and ask, “What did you mean by this? Are you saying X or Y?” But sometimes you don’t have that luxury, or they’re trusting you, as a third party, to verify the distinction. Make a choice and stick to it! (Consistency is the unsung king of editing.)
And on a purely financial note, laboring over a single article can hurt your bottom line. (Bleh, I know how salesy that sounds, but it’s true.) If you have a lot of clients, you probably also have a decent workload that you must go through every day, and if takes you three hours to edit a press release because you can’t decide on the hyphenation of a word, then those clients are going to slowly disappear because your turnaround is slow. Your pay rate will suffer too, especially if you’re only getting paid by the word — getting paid by the hour will make it seem like you’re getting more money for less work, but to me, that not only seems somewhat dishonest, you’re also going to quickly lose traction making job offers because not too many companies are willing to pay a $30 an hour for only 300 words edited. You have to reach a point where you complete an edit and say, “Good enough.” You did the job to the best of your ability within a reasonable time frame, and it’s ready to be published.
Again, I’m not saying to treat your work flippantly or to toss off a white paper after a quick skim. I myself tend to go over a piece of copy at least two times, sometimes three. But I’ve found that more run-throughs just results in nit-picking and waffling, and sometimes you can even alter a piece of text so much in the name of grammatical perfection that it actually loses its original meaning. Usually, your first instinct, your “gut feeling,” is the best one, and the more experienced you get, the more accurate and succinct that instinct will be.
In copy editing, as with many things in life, less is usually more.
How do you balance between perfection and “good enough”?