Words Matter: Copyediting as a Process for (or Against) Social Change

Kavita Das
From the May/June 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I was more than five years into my writing career before I worked with a copy editor, first at a print literary magazine and then for my first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar (HarperCollins India, 2019). Until then I had a murky understanding of what copy editors do and what copyediting entails. I assumed it encompassed making sure I was using correct grammar and punctuation as well as reading closely for any typographical errors. In my experience copyediting was done informally by the same editor who acquired my piece, or in some cases it fell to me, as a last step before a piece went live online. When I finally worked with a copy editor, I came to understand copyediting to be so much more and saw that its impact on literature is crucial. From fact-checking to eliminating repetitive words and crutch phrases to simplifying overly complex sentences, copyediting left my prose clearer and cleaner. 

From left: Gayatri Patnaik, Dennis Norris II, Hillary Brenhouse, Molly Lindley Pisani, and Sangeeta Mehta. (Credit: Patnaik: Brian Yoder Schlabach; Norris: Melissa Czarnik; Brenhouse: Benoît Paillé; Pisani: Nolan Conway; Mehta: Steven Speilotis)

For Molly Lindley Pisani, a freelance copy editor and CEO of Star-Splitter Editorial Services, the job of the copy editor is “no less and no more than to help the author make their book into the best possible version of itself.” Building on this, Susan Lumenello, managing editor of Beacon Press, says that copyediting aims to “improve the work through fact-checking, identifying inconsistencies, and finding technical errors (punctuation and such) but also by noting repetition in language, or vague phrasing that might mislead or confuse a reader.” Jennifer Baker, former managing editor at Random House Children’s Books and the editor of the anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018), agrees that copyediting involves “looking at consistency, coherency, accuracy” and adds that in some cases it can also veer into addressing narrative development.

In recent years copyediting has felt the impact of two cultural shifts. First, in the shift from print to digital media, the publication process has been compressed, and one of the casualties has often been copyediting. As a result, in digital spaces the work of copy editors has sometimes either been heaped onto other editors or done away with entirely. (This explains my own experience of working with copy editors so infrequently while publishing with mostly online publications.) 

The other lens through which to understand the role of copy editors and copyediting is our evolving awareness of the far-reaching impact of racial injustice and inequality, including its effect on the world of publishing. In recent years and months, there has been increased attention to the lack of diversity at all levels of the publishing sector, especially in editorial and decision-making roles. The latest Publishers Weekly survey of representation in the industry, conducted in 2018, reveals that 84 percent of the publishing workforce is white. This lack of diversity fuels an underrepresentation of perspectives in what is published while also contributing to implicit assumptions that readers are white. Writers who make it through the acquisitions gauntlet and have their work accepted then have to navigate the developmental editing, copyediting, and marketing aspects of the publishing process, which may not value the preservation of authentic voices and perspectives of BIPOC writers. I went into my first encounters with copy editors wary, having heard stories of negative experiences from fellow writers of color. Some were dismayed by how their writing had been whitewashed by having culturally relevant language removed or been pushed to include copious explanatory language, detracting from their narrative. 

When we examine the role of copy-editing within our larger concerns around achieving greater equity in publishing, we can see how copy editors can help or hinder social change. As Hillary Brenhouse, a freelance writer and editor-at-large of Guernica literary magazine, says unequivocally, “Words matter. And so, copy editors, when properly employed, have an incredible amount of influence and responsibility.” For example, copy editors are often the keepers and enforcers of the publisher’s style guide, which catalogues the organization’s approach to all manner of issues of grammar, punctuation, and terminology. But what if that style guide is static or is slow to reflect cultural shifts? Brenhouse describes an incident from her early days as a freelance copy editor at a publication where a new editor of color advocated for dropping the hyphen from “African-American.” The new editor argued that the hyphen contributes to othering minority identities, but the white copy editor stubbornly objected because it went against the publication’s style guide. 

Conversely, copy editors can be instrumental in evolving a publication’s style to address current progressive thinking on issues of identity and equity. For example, many newspapers and magazines changed the convention of referring to Black identity from a lowercase b to a capitalized B. Lori L. Tharps, a writer and professor of journalism at Temple University, was among the advocates for this change. “We are a community of people who deserve to be referenced with the capital letter. We are not speaking of people’s skin color, we are speaking of a culture,” explained Tharps as quoted in a recent Washington Post article. The switch to capitalization allows writers to better reflect this distinction and, in turn, makes the language of these publications that much more nuanced in discussions of identity and race. (Poets & Writers Magazine made this change in mid-2018.)

I myself have witnessed and been part of a campaign to change journalistic copyediting conventions. In 2010, before coming to writing full-time, I worked as the marketing and communications director at the organization Race Forward, whose “Drop the I-Word” campaign sought to have the Associated Press and news outlets cease using the word illegal for describing undocumented immigrants, nodding to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s words that “no human being is illegal.” Facing such decisions, copy editors are tasked with balancing accuracy and the clarity that comes from consistency with an evolving sense of how best to represent identity in ways that promote equity. 

Similarly, editors and copy editors sometimes make assumptions about the audience of the book and the notion of foreignness. Pisani recalls copy-editing the work of a writer who was born in Africa and lives in the U.S. and whose manuscript included words from her cultural heritage. Traditional copyediting convention called for italicizing non-English words. “I realized that if I did this, there would be italics peppered throughout the whole book, and those italics would be quietly telling the reader, ‘This word doesn’t fit in.’” So, Pisani decided to italicize those words only when they were first used and defined by the author. The growing sense of the use of italics as potentially othering is beginning to spur changes to copyediting conventions at some publications. (Poets & Writers Magazine recently changed its style to honor an author’s preference regarding italicizing non-English words.) Ultimately, “everything is changing, all the time—the way we think, the way we write and speak, the English language, the world we live in—and how a copy editor interacts with text should be changing regularly to reflect that,” says Brenhouse. 

Given how crucial it is to the publishing process, what does copyediting look like when these issues are addressed? What does it entail for the writer, the publisher, and the copy editor themselves? Lumenello views authors as the authority on their work and consequently starts by identifying for herself an idea of the author’s voice and intent and then “address[es] the manuscript in terms of sense, style, clarity, and grammar.” 

The copy editors with whom I spoke note curiosity and humility as important traits for those in their profession, especially when it comes to engendering trust with authors. When they aren’t familiar with language embedded in cultural identity or are unsure of an author’s intent, they approach it by querying the author rather than making assumptions or hastily applying standards. This requires copy editors to approach their work not only with their technical skills, but also with a sense of self-awareness and empathy. “Many of our books are by writers from marginalized communities or by authors writing about marginalized communities,” Lumenello says. “It’s important that copy editors recognize their own limitations, even biases, and bring a free mind to the task of trying to improve a manuscript.” Ultimately, Lumenello knows if she has done her job well, “then the author and the house will be happy, and the book will maybe be a bit better.”

Gayatri Patnaik, the associate director and editorial director at Beacon Press, agrees. “I can’t stress strongly enough how crucial copyediting is to a book because of the range of work that copy editors do,” she says. “I’ve had copy editors help strengthen arguments, suggest changes in diction, suggest cuts due to repetition—and all these things succeeded in vastly improving the book. An editor is usually able to bring a book up to a point, and we count on copy editors to further improve it,” says Patnaik, underscoring how copy editors augment the collaborative work begun by the writer and primary editor. 

Brenhouse, who has experienced copyediting both as a writer and copy editor, observes, “As a copy editor I’ve gotten into dozens of discussions with writers about changes I made that impacted them and their work, and as a writer I’ve gotten into those same discussions, because copy editors have made changes that affected me and my work.” Her years of dual experience have changed the way she thinks about choices in grammar and syntax: “I don’t think of these as simple punctuation marks anymore; I recognize the inherent bias in certain uses of punctuation, and, for instance, I don’t think it’s fussy to debate about whether a word ought to be capitalized or not. Writers and editors know that these things matter, that they aren’t trivial, that they carry so much weight.” 

Freelance writer and editor Dennis Norris II views the copyediting process as “an opportunity for conversation between the writer and the copy editor.” Norris notes: “Both parties should be comfortable explaining how they are reading or hearing something, and the copy editor must remember that first and foremost, they are there to protect, preserve, and promote that author’s voice on the page, and not Merriam-Webster’s.” They go on to highlight how identity and experience can influence the process. “Being copy-edited by POC and queer folks, given that those are the identities at work in my writing, has always unquestionably elevated my writing. There has often been an understanding of language and style that doesn’t need to be explained and that the editor is capable of enhancing.” Conversely, the lack of editorial diversity affects work by marginalized writers. “If you have a lack of familiarity you’ll go in with a lot of preconceived notions that can weaken the work rather than strengthen or enhance the consistency within it,” says Jennifer Baker. “The more publishers aim to publish more representative books without having the staff on hand who have that awareness, the more the  work is forced into another viewpoint rather than being able to flourish in its originality.” 

Just as steps are being taken to address diversity in other parts of publishing, the same needs to be done to ensure that copyediting as a field is diverse and inclusive and meets the needs of all authors, including those who come from marginalized backgrounds and whose work reflects those identities. When it comes to meaningful diversity and inclusivity training for the existing pool of copy editors versus the need to hire and attract copy editors of diverse backgrounds, Baker says both are necessary. “There are barriers everywhere, and it has to be tackled in publishing houses as well as in training beyond grammar and sentence structure. Copy editors work in-house and freelance, and if those groups are vastly white and monolingual then no amount of training is going to create true parity.” Brenhouse agrees but also notes that particularly for literary magazines, it’s important that copy editors and their work be seen as integral to the broader editorial discussions, including decisions about the style guide, which should be a living document that truly reflects the organization’s current thoughts and approach, informed by ongoing discussions. Pisani feels that “a lot of progress could be achieved if folks who are already copy editors take on the work of broadening their perspective as part of the job description and work to dispel the popular notion of ourselves as keepers of the grammatical faith who aim to crush authors’ souls beneath a stack of rulebooks.” 

Pisani belongs to the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), which supports freelance editors by making a directory of its members available to clients in search of freelance editorial services. EFA also provides its members with educational and networking opportunities. When Sangeeta Mehta, a freelance developmental editor based in Manhattan, joined the EFA she noticed a lack of diversity among the organization’s membership and leadership and in 2016 ran for the EFA board on a platform emphasizing the importance of diversity within the ranks of freelance editors. She won a seat on the board and, with the support of other leaders, in January 2017 launched EFA’s Diversity Initiative with the aim of diversifying EFA’s membership and promoting equitable access to career opportunities since the freelance editorial space can be daunting and isolating, especially for editors from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds.

EFA’s Diversity Initiative includes events, resources, and a welcome program, pairing longtime members with new members from diverse backgrounds to help them access EFA’s resources and make connections. EFA also offers resources on language bias and sensitivity reading and trainings on topics such as trans allyship. The organization developed the resource of a word list, which Mehta describes as a list of “contested terms that often come up in diversity discourse and should be kept in mind while editing.” 

EFA has recently undertaken a diversity survey, which will gauge members’ understanding and experience of diversity issues but also includes the first demographic survey in the organization’s fifty-year history, since it’s hard to effectively address diversity and inclusion issues without a baseline understanding of the demographics of their members. Once they have this data, Mehta says the leadership will use it to put policies and practices in place to help make EFA more accessible and inclusive. 

“Diversity and inclusion training can help, but hiring an editor from a specific background is often preferable, says Mehta, pointing to resources that exist including the Editors of Color database and the People of Color in Publishing website. Resources like the Black Editors & Proofreaders site can aid writers of color who feel it’s important to work with POC editors and professionals. Mehta also points to Karen Yin’s Conscious Style Guide, which helps “writers and editors think critically about using language—including words, portrayals, framing, and representation—to empower instead of limit.” 

These are important first steps in ensuring that copyediting as a field becomes more equitable. Given its importance to writers, editors, and publishing as a whole, it’s critical that this work continues, because, as Brenhouse observes, the copyediting process “can make the writer into an outsider and push them to the margins of their own work,” or it “can make space for the writer and their authentic voice, can help the writer claim centrality in the text—all while pursuing precision, consistency, and stylishness.” 


Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize, Das has had work published on the CNN and NBC News Asian America websites, in Teen Vogue, Catapult, Fast Company, Tin House, Longreads, the Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Washington Post, Kenyon Review, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, a biography about the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, was published in June 2019. Das is at work on her next book, Sparking Change on the Page: Lessons and Reflections on Writing About Social Issues, forthcoming in summer 2022 from Beacon Press. She lives in New York City with her husband, baby daughter, and hound. Find her on Twitter, @kavitamix.