Why is training and mentoring essential in academic copyediting?

A typical daily copyediting problem

A question that some students had asked me off and on came to my mind. It was about using (or omitting) a comma before the conjunction but. We all know that we'll have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. But to explain this I needed to have a bunch of (preferably live) examples. 

I spent time pulling out a bunch of sentences having but in their middle. As I worked through them and started deleting, adding, and retaining commas, I thought it might be better to categorize these examples for the benefit of students. Two concepts were already clear in my mind because I'd already discussed them in detail in my courses:

  • Compound sentences where the subject is given only once may benefit by a comma before the conjunction when the connective is but (Essentials of Written English)
  • Some expressions beginning with but may actually be restrictive elements (Sentence Patterns 1: The Restrictive-Nonrestrictive Conundrum)

When I examined the sentences in my collection, I came up with the following categorization:

  • Compound sentence with but (and requiring a comma before but)
  • Compound sentence where the subject is given only once and requiring a comma before but
  • Compound sentence where the subject is given only once and not requiring a comma before but
  • Parenthetic element beginning with but
  • Restrictive element beginning with but
  • Not only/but also constructions and their variations (part of Rule 12: Parallelism, discussed in Essentials of Written English)
    • not A but B (no comma; both only and also omitted)
    • not A, but B (comma because of structural differences between the two parts)
    • not A, but also B (comma; only omitted)
    • not only A, but B (comma; also omitted)
    • not only A, (comma; but also omitted, and therefore cannot figure in our list of examples)
    • not only A, . . . also (comma; but omitted, and therefore cannot figure in our list of examples)
    • not only A but also B (no comma)
    • not only A, but also B (comma because of structural differences between the two parts)
    • Typical parallelism problems with not only/but also constructions (where words have to be transposed/moved around irrespective of whether we use the comma or not)

I was awestruck by this categorization, and for two reasons:

  • I started out with what I thought was a single idea: just explain the use and nonuse of a comma before the conjunction but.
  • This alone led me to 12 scenarios that I'll have to explain.


Understanding the example in a more generic way

The word but is what I would call a catchword. You will not find catchword defined in a dictionary, as this is purely my own terminology. A catchword is simply a commonly used word in English that you can catch hold of and examine (the way it is used in sentences) to learn and understand various principles of writing. I use this concept quite frequently in my teaching.

Now, coming back to but: one simple catchword and so many scenarios to consider and understand.

  • First, do you think this is easy—to understand all these scenarios, and to address them on the fly, while reading to edit?
  • Second, do you think these can be learned without training and mentoring?

Now let us take this further, as it applies in the daily life of a copyeditor. Think of multiple catchwords and the innumerable scenarios to remember and apply—again on the fly.

But then, catchwords are provided and discussed to help you understand the principles. The simple truth is that these principles will have to applied wherever appropriate in sentences, whatever be the word(s) used.

This is where an understanding of sentence structure and punctuation (basically comma use, as discussed in Sentence Patterns 1: The Restrictive–Nonrestrictive Conundrum and Sentence Patterns 2: The Number of Subjects and the Number of Associated Actions) can provide a strong foundation for understanding content. It should also be obvious from the above categorization that it would be pointless to edit sentences without a grasp of the structure and components of sentences and the relationships between them.

But the question still remains: Can all these be learned without formal training and mentoring—without these being pointed out as and when they appear in live work?

On the contrary, a period of regular mentoring where everyday problems are addressed live, together with logical explanations, would amount to learning daily, on the job, and would be the best way to learn things in this profession.


Outline of concepts to be learned in academic copyediting

Now let us extrapolate this to all the things to be learned in a typical copyediting program, as it applies to academic and scholarly work:

  1. Basic formatting aspects of copyediting
    • identifying and styling journal manuscript elements (including affiliation-related and title-page-footnote-related complexities) and the complex markup that may be involved in four-color books with chapter-opening elements, boxed elements in the text, case studies, chapter review elements, and the like
    • styling the list of references (the plethora of style involved), reference citations
    • editorial marking up of textual minutiae (including basic preferences and the limitless scientific conventions)
    • editing of tables and ensuring effective table layouts
    • editorial formatting for correct typesetting of math
  2. Basic principles of composition (in any type of writing/editing)
    • organizing one’s thoughts and sentences into paragraphs and sections
    • taking care of subject–verb agreement
    • knowing how to punctuate simple, compound, and complex sentences
    • using punctuation marks correctly
    • using parallel construction for forceful expression
    • ensuring correct use of the apostrophe
  3. Comma use (a solid understanding of the most misused mark of punctuation)
  4. Verbs, tenses, and voice—and the grammar associated with all these
  5. Article use (an important area, more so because some languages have articles and some don’t, and the English language also has its own preferences)
  6. Use of hyphens and en dashes (a complex area by itself and is therefore better learned after the earlier topics have been understood to a good extent)
  7. Efficient use of Microsoft Word
    • Using Windows and Word shortcuts
    • Using the track changes feature in Word (and the various views connected with these) as well as the comments feature
    • Using the powerful formatting features of Word
    • Using an existing Word styles template
    • Creating shortcuts for Word styles
    • Creating a Word template (or modifying an existing one)
    • Creating a master template (from which you can create any journal or book-project template)
  8. Using existing style sheets, checklists and gradually learning how to prepare them in accordance with need
  9. Journal editing and then book editing (and learning to handle independently the complexities in each)
  10. Learning to use automation—can range from text expanders to macros, to Word add-ins—to ensure consistency, speed up productivity, and improve overall efficiency
  11. Using prescribed dictionaries effectively (the general public use just about 2% of what is given in a dictionary)
  12. Editing manuscripts in varied fields (such as social sciences, management, humanities, physics, chemistry, life sciences, medicine)
  13. Using style guides provided, recommended style manuals, and other relevant resources available on the Net
  14. Systematic precopyedit analysis of a journal article or book project
  15. Understanding the peculiarities and complexities associated with each project and coming up with an appropriate (and effective) copyedit workflow for each
  16. Building powerful word lists for both journal and book editing and using them effectively
  17. Writing technical, correct, and effective queries to the author
  18. Interacting with typesetters and understanding typesetting queries and their point of view (and learning how errors happen in a process)
  19. Learning how copyediting fits in with the production process and the overall publishing process
  20. Becoming adept in copyediting and learning to handle higher levels of editing
  21. Moving (at any of the earlier stages) into project management and account management roles


Extrapolation of the idea

Remember what happened with the simple case of but discussed earlier. Now extrapolate that idea to the entire copyediting program:

  • the subtleties that may be associated with every topic listed above
  • the time that may be necessary to learn each one of these

Now think about this: Is it even possible for anyone to survive in this industry for long without training and mentoring?


What does all this mean?

  • Academic copyediting is an art that has a long learning curve.
  • Formal training and follow-up mentoring are therefore necessary to help one become a reasonably good editor.
  • Having some form of regular mentoring would be the quickest way of learning the art.
  • An obvious implication here is that an individual learning something through daily training and mentoring (in a formal learning environment) would be able to learn the art much faster than an individual learning as a freelance editor (at one's own pace).


Copyediting scenario in India

The problem

  • With the increase in outsourcing to India and the Philippines, in-house copyediting training has gradually declined in the West, to the extent that it is almost nonexistent now.
  • By the same token, in-house copyediting training should have evolved and increased in India.
  • But we've not really had any serious copyediting training programs in India for the last 10–15 years.
  • And worse still, we seem to be imagining that we can manage by taking more and more "experienced" freelance editors.
  • How can we get experienced employees when there has been no training in the industry in the last 10–15 years?
  • We seem to be ending up having more and more copyeditors in the industry who have not had any formal training on the subject.

The solution

  • Course correction must be done at the industry level
    • In-house copyeditors must be put through a training and mentoring process to raise the standard of copyediting within the company/organization
    • When the in-house standard improves and the managers start providing solid feedback to freelance editors working for the company, things will start changing for the better.
    • Sustained and solid feedback to freelance editors will automatically force freelance editors to start learning and gain credibility in the form of some training, course completion, or certification.
  • This way, the standard of copyediting in India can be improved and gradually made to come up to international standards.
  • To help achieve these, The Art of Copyediting can provide the necessary training, on par with the best standards in the world.


Practical aspects of the solution

  • Training should happen in stages (in a gradational way), as indicated below.
  • Training and mentoring must happen as a routine.
  • Learners/copyeditors must practice these concepts on their own for 2-3 months before taking up the next stage of training
  • Outline of gradational training:
    • Stage 1: Getting the basics right
    • Stage 2: Understanding the nuances
    • Stage 3: Harnessing the power of Microsoft word
    • Stage 4: Consolidating principles of copyediting
    • Stage 5: Establishing credibility
    • Stage 6: Book editing
    • Stage 7: Becoming an expert


Advantages of a gradational training program

  • Copyeditors not up to the mark can be filtered out in the first 1–2 months of the first stage of training. (Not everyone can edit, and some may even realize that this cannot be their vocation in life.)
  • With this gradational method of training and mentoring, one can have clear-cut records of the progress of individual copyeditors, who can then be certified for specific levels of competence.
  • In such a system, copyeditors can move from one level to another almost every year (10-12 month cycles) and so there can be a planned recruitment of freshers in organizations (when one set of people move to the next level)
    • When a new batch is inducted, The Art of Copyediting can again help in the training and mentoring of new recruits in all the formatting aspects of copyediting.
  • The entire set of exercises can help establish the base for other editorial functions:
    • Bring in a new era of better project management
    • Strengthen book design and design survey
    • Build developmental editing and manuscript evaluation functions
  • Copyeditors (both in-house and freelance) can be given a clear growth plan—what they can achieve and how they can grow over the years.
  • With a dynamic growth plan in place, even freelance editors working for a company will have to upgrade their skills.


Concluding thoughts

Will the Indian publishing services industry rise up to the challenge? I'm not sure whether we even have an option here, given the currently prevalent standards. But will companies invest in training in the weeks and months ahead (and more so in view of the stagnation caused by the pandemic)? These are questions that only time can answer.

But The Art of Copyediting is clear about playing an important role in building the editorial pool for the nation.


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