What a Good Copy Editor Does – Interview with Leonard Pierce

When I was first introduced to Leonard Pierce, I realized immediately that here was someone who shared my values of excellence, professionalism, and a passion for words. As any writer worth their salt knows, it’s the likes of Leonard who make us look good!

For the past 25 years, Leonard has been a freelance writer and editor for magazines (including National Geographic), as well as newspapers and websites. I was thrilled that he agreed to join my “virtual team” to extend his services to my clients and anyone else who appreciates that the language you use to communicate an idea is as important as the idea itself.

Let’s begin by talking about the skills you have, Leonard, for improving someone’s writing – beyond simply tidying up grammar and correcting spelling.  Is this something anyone can be educated or trained to do? How much of a lover of words do you need to be to be a consummate copyeditor?

LP: I firmly believe that anyone can acquire a skill with enough practice and dedication, but if your passion for the work isn’t there, you won’t have the incentive to put in the time it takes to learn that skill.  A common misunderstanding that many copyeditors have is that it simply involves learning a specific set of rules for grammar, syntax and style and applying them across the board. The best copyeditors are those who understand the art as well as the craft and make sure the final work reads as if it’s a true creation, not just a collection of sentences that have been subjected to a checklist of rules.

That’s why you have to love to write, as well as love to read, to really excel at being a copyeditor.

I read a couple of articles recently, this one bemoaning the “internet-induced cheapening of language” and another one talking about the “rampant illiteracy on Twitter” and other social media sites. As a wordsmith, what are your thoughts on these issues?

LP:  I’m of two minds about this.  The arbitrary restriction of language can be a paralyzer of thought, or an incredibly effective focuser of it — it depends entirely on the user’s attitude towards it.  (Personally, as someone interested in all these things, I’ve found Twitter to be excellent for publicity and marketing, and a source of some great experiments in humor, but as a way to express complex ideas it falls a bit short.)  But one thing about the Internet is that it doesn’t allow you to maintain many illusions.  I don’t believe there are more illiterate people or more lazy writing than there was before, just that the Internet doesn’t allow us to pretend these problems don’t exist.

It’s not that the Internet has created a lot of bad writers; it’s that it has exposed the number of bad writers who were already there.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned about good writing, good editing or pretty much anything to do with publishing exemplary content while you worked at National Geographic?

LP: My time at National Geographic’s school publishing division taught me so many important skills and lessons, but none of them greater than the value of teamwork.  Writers and editors are often used to working in isolation, but educational publishing is such a complex task, with so many factors and so many demands, that it has to be done by a team, and the teams I worked with were truly exceptional. Every division had different skill sets that elevated the entire project to a higher level, and multiple sets of eyes ensured that if one group missed an error or an opportunity for improvement, the next would catch it.  With everyone working together, each member of the group picked up each other’s skills like a benevolent contagion — everyone learned a little more about editing, writing, design, layout, proofing, and production than they knew before. In the end, you looked at the finished product and didn’t think about your own individual contribution, but the pride of being part of a team that had put out something better than you could have ever done on your own.

Well, that raises an issue I come across all the time. We’ve all met those business people who are so used to doing everything themselves that they delude themselves into thinking they can write a superior book – or any great content – on their own. What’s been your experience of that?

LP: People who have become successful often forget that part of what made them successful is knowing how to identify talented people and delegate necessary work to them.  Even for the most brilliant people, there are only 24 hours in the day, and finding the right people to handle the right tasks is part of being a good leader. Writing, like any other skill, is something you can only do well if you stay in practice — if you share that job with someone who has spent as much time doing it as you have running your business. The end result of which is that everyone does the work they’re best at, and the final product is all the better for it.

Finally, Leonard, if you weren’t busy polishing other peoples’ prose, what would you be doing?

LP: That’s a great question.  There’s not a lot of money in being a professional hobo, and since libraries don’t serve alcohol, I suppose I’d try and secure employment as a bartender somewhere that carried a lot of baseball games.

LOL. Thanks, Leonard!