I just read an article by Helen Betya Rubinstein called “Against Copyediting: Is It Time to Abolish the Department of Corrections?“. It’s on the long side, but it’s a good read. The basic idea is that copyediting does more harm than good. It is so focused on making things “correct” that it acts to prop up the already powerful and keep down the already oppressed. That may sound a bit dramatic, but I’m inclined to agree with her.
Just to clarify, copyediting is different than regular editing. It’s the job of the copyeditor to make sure that the writing follows the rules. They make sure that all of the punctuation is right, the right words are capitalized, quotation marks are used properly, and everything is grammatically correct. It’s as pedantic as it sounds.
One of my jobs is as a writing tutor at a local community college. Students regularly ask me to copyedit their work. It’s easily the worst part of my job. It’s not that I’m no good at it or that I don’t know all the rules. It’s partly because I hate being that picky. But, more importantly, it takes away the author’s voice. One of the huge problems with college essays is that they’re all the same. Copyediting makes that uniformity worse.
It’s not the students’ fault. It’s what has been drilled into their heads since kindergarten, the idea that there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. An academic essay needs to be in a certain format with a certain tone and all of the grammar and syntax need to be perfect. If that’s not the case, the students will lose points and, let’s face it, the only reason they’re writing the essay is for the grade.
It makes me kind of sad whenever I help a student smooth their paper over. There are a lot of interesting, unique people who attend the college. I feel like their writing should reflect that. If they speak a different language, their accents should shine through. I should be able to tell if they’re young, old, or in the middle. Instead, it comes across as all of the students using the same template. That template works for some, but not for most.
I know some will say that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. That’s nonsense, though. Grammar rules aren’t even rules at all. They’re nothing more than conventions. There are plenty of subsets of English speakers with different conventions. Why should they be forced into using the rich, white conventions instead of their own?
I guess what I’m saying is that copyediting takes all the vibrancy out of a piece of writing. It muffles the author’s voice. It makes the piece less interesting. It’s almost like using Grammarly. Personally, I’d much rather let some “mistakes” sneak through if it means hearing the author’s voice more clearly. We need to get to a place where we judge what is being said instead of how it’s being said. Many of us want a diverse and tolerant world. Why should our writing be any different?