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Credit: Nic McPhee

You need good grammar skills to become a great writer ~ sincerely, a copy editor

I was a copy editor most of my career. I’ve worked with both gifted and terrible writers. Terrible writers don’t know basic grammar rules; so their writing skills are sorely lacking. When I try to explain why a sentence is grammatically incorrect, many of them say, “That’s what copy editors are for” (Notice the dangling preposition at the end).

*sigh*

I’ve been a writer for quite a while. I actually started my career as a newspaper reporter and later became a copy editor. Reporting wasn’t what I loved, but I did love copy editing until too many writers thought it was my job to do their job.

You might be asking what is the job of a copy editor. You probably will get differing opinions about that. Instead, let me tell you what is not my job (This is assuming you don’t have an understanding with your copy editor to provide the first three bullet points below):

  1. Fixing your poor grammar. In this case, almost every sentence has a problem. You don’t understand noun-verb agreement; you use comma splices; you use run-on sentences. It really is important to master grammar rules. When you get a handle on these rules, you’ll understand how to break them to create different narratives in your writing.
  2. Finishing your draft. Yes, I’ve had writers ask me to clean up a draft. They slapped something together and wanted me to make it pretty for them. Here’s the problem with that. By the time I rework it — which usually involves substantial rewriting — it’s no longer their voice. Instead, it’s mine even if their name is on the byline.
  3. Hunting down your sources. If you use any material that isn’t your own, give credit to the author. If you don’t, you’re guilty of plagiarism. If your copy contains quotes or statistics, it’s your job to provide references. Then give me that information so I can double-check them. Do not send me your article without sources. I’ll send it right back to you.
  4. Making you feel like crap about your writing. This may seem hard to believe given my previous points. Copy editors are thorough. That’s why writers use us. I marked up that sentence for a reason. It didn’t make sense to me, and I’ll challenge you about accepting that change. But overall, I’ll defer to you as the author unless you’ve made a blatant error. Ultimately, it’s your decision whether you accept my suggestions.

Helping each other write better.