First, Do No Harm
When we talk about copyediting, we're not talking about life and death, but copy editors would do well to adopt the motto of medical professionals when laying hands on a writer's work. Author Tim Parks illustrates this point too well in "Learning to Speak American," his recent post on The New York Review of Books blog. There, Parks laments his experience with an American copy editor who is "helping" him "translate" his European English for an American audience. The "corrections" Parks describes seem unnecessary and ultimately harmful to the book and to the author's relationship with the publisher (not to mention with copy editors in general).
Writers often have uneasy relationships with the editors assigned by their publishers. During the publishing process, writers are generally nervous, and why wouldn't they be? They are laying their souls and their reputations on the line, and they count on copy editors to validate them and at the same time to prevent them from making fools of themselves in public. Considering what is at stake, it is distressing to hear yet another story about how a copy editor has steered a writer in the wrong direction.
An adept editor strives to make a book the best whatever-it-is it can be. Based on Parks's description, his editor pushed corrections that went against the book's own nature--for instance, forcing Italian characters to refer to yards, miles, and Fahrenheit rather than meters, kilometers, and Celcius. Parks characterizes his copy editor as "actually a very fine editor, I think," but by this very characterization he seems unsure about the editor's quality. It's as if he's saying, "The publisher assigned this editor to me, so he must be a professional, right? He must be a good editor, right?" But the corrections Parks describes suggest either an inexperienced editor or one who is rigid to the detriment of the books he edits. Parks seems to understand this at some level but seems reluctant to trust his own judgment in the matter.
Ideally, a copy editor is a writer's ally. A fine editor communicates early on in the process that s/he is working on the author's behalf, in support of the best version of the book. However, since we don't live in an ideal world, writers should not automatically trust the editors assigned to them by publishers, since some of these editors will, as occurs in any profession, turn out to be duds. It is especially important that writers develop the confidence in their own judgment and their own intentions to question their copy editors about corrections that feel wrong. That feeling doesn't always mean the corrections are wrong, but a good editor will be able to clearly explain every single correction or suggestion as serving the book, based on the book's nature and the writer's intentions. Writers must never lose sight of the fact that--other than grammatical and mechanical corrections--the final decisions are theirs, that the ultimate responsibility for the book lies with the person whose name appears on the cover.