The Importance of Copyediting

It may be interesting to see a headline for a $5 civil lawsuit, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that this is actually a $5 million dollar lawsuit regarding the wrongful death of a prominent political leader. Normally, this would not be something I would bother to highlight on my blog, except for the fact that the topic really has nothing to do with what this triggered in my head: what does it mean when people are so quick to get things out the door that they fail to completely proof their documents?

There’s really two ways for me to approach this question: as a web site designer and as a writing tutor. Really, the answer here is much the same, but the perspectives on the issue are different.

Commentary from Both Roles: Being hurried in your writing is never a good thing, whether that’s for the web or for any other purpose (professional, academic, and so forth). Grammatical mistakes have cost people lots of time and money (and, in some cases, jobs), and factual mistakes can almost be far worse. In today’s world, though, it’s highly acceptable to shove out content before it’s anywhere near ready for public consumption. The New York Times used to (and still does occasionally) publish articles on their web site rife with grammatical errors and signs of bad copyediting.

This is a cultural phenomenon and a symptom of our high-paced society where, if we don’t get instant gratification, we’ll go elsewhere. The ones that win at the professional game of copyediting chess are those that are careful and don’t put information out there until it’s polished to a soft sheen.

Web Designer/Developer: This can be death to a web site depending upon whether it’s a major site (like our ongoing example of the New York Times) or a small one, such as the ones maintained by many of my past and current clients. There is, of course, a range of copyediting: the completely rough draft to the obviously polished, well-articulated statement. But carelessness when your web site shines in other places can really stick out like a sore thumb. Making sure that the text you put online is free of grammatical errors is to your benefit, since it not only strengthens your message, but also ensures that the reader keeps reading.

That said, please don’t forget to copyedit not only text, but images. I’ve seen many an image on the Web where it’s a beautiful piece of work, but its beauty is completely marred by one glaring grammatical error that should have been corrected before the image was completed.

Writing Tutor: I see a lot of students come in with grammatical errors (in fact, in my three years of working at the Writing Center, I’ve only ever had one paper come in the door that was literally perfect and needed absolutely no changes whatsoever). Since this is an academic environment, those grammatical errors don’t matter so much and don’t have as much of an impact on life. It is to the benefit of these students to understand how to properly use commas, dependent clauses, and modifiers, but it’s rarely as important that all the details be absolutely perfect before a paper is handed in. This is a very different approach to copyediting than in the professional world. This is a learning environment, so you are expected to learn something about how to properly write a paper, which includes grammar.

Yet, still, grammar is one of those things that literally nobody gets right 100% of the time. Especially in English, there are niggling, obscure grammatical rules that only apply a very small percentage of the time that can come back and bite you later (assuming that someone who actually knows that rule notices the error and points it out). That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and scream out to the Heavens for mercy on your poor, grammar-impaired soul; in all these situations, it merely means being cautious and observant about how a document is written. The example of the image I linked to above was an obvious, glaring error that could have been fixed if they had bothered to read their headlines before they hit the “Submit” button. Copyediting is as important as ever, and it’s important to remember this.