An Open Letter to a Copy-Editor


Copy-editors perform a valuable service. They take prose that is often rough and unfinished, and massage it into a professional document. Unfortunately, sometimes copy editing can go to far and distort the meaning, especially in technical writing. Also, my feeling is that across the across-the-board copy editing performed by many publications results in writing whose language is uniformly polished, and, yes, bland. Think of what would happen if the writings of Hemmingway got copy edited. While I consider my writing at least five leagues below that level, I prefer to learn my own way toward perfection, than to battle with corrections that sometimes change the meaning of what I write in treacherous ways.

The following letter outlines my feelings on the subject.

Dear editor,

I am working on the changes you made on my writing, and I can now better express the problem I have with production editing. In a number of places the meaning of what I wrote has been distorted. When I write I try very hard to use proper English: when I finish I print my work and mark corrections with a pen, and then I print it again for a second round of corrections. I also consult a number of books I keep on a shelf within arm's reach (see attached picture). Nevertheless I'm sure some errors will come through, particularly because I am not a native speaker of English. As an example, I know I make a number of mistakes with the placing of commas.

Correcting the completely reworked text you typically send me is no fun. In general, your small-scale changes are typically fine, but your large-scale changes (moving sentences around, adding or removing words associated with the article's domain, or rewording a group of sentences) as sometimes off-mark and require additional work from me to fix them. What I would prefer would be for you to only fix genuine errors: elements for which a native speaker would complain that the article had not been copy-edited. I also like the touch you put into the text's headings, and, of course, I have not problem with typesetting changes made according to the house's style. If you did your changes with "track-changes" activated, it would be perfect for me. For any other improvements you may have on your mind, I'd be glad to receive suggestions in an email, to take them into account in the future. For example, I am now trying to adopt a more conversational tone (I'd instead of I would), and use passive voice only where active voice makes no sense.

Please don't misunderstand this letter. I really appreciate the work you are putting into my work; I just think that with the less heavy-handed approach I propose we can both be more productive, and I will also be a lot happier.

All the best,


Books for better writing

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Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2005 12:46 am

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