It does take a compulsiveness... a person who isn't compulsive isn't going to catch all the typos, or care, or worry about whether a word is spelled right or whether a phrase is as clear as it should be.
What makes a good copy editor? A love of books and the English language is a basic quality, as is respect for authors and what they are trying to accomplish. The copy editor must be an expert on words, grammar, and usage, and also possess a keen eye for detail.
The copy editor's job begins when the senior or general editor has already done the "creative," or developmental, line editing. He or she then pores over the manuscript, as a kind of word inspector, searching for errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and seeking out inconsistencies and repetitions.
The copy editor must also be aware of the nuances of language. He or she attempts to eliminate jargon from a manuscript and avoid pretentious language. Although the copy editor does not function as a co-author or researcher, he or she may be asked to cut portions of the manuscript, a very sensitive task.
Most publishing houses spare the copy editor the tedium of fact- checking, especially since the workload of an in-house copy editor may include as many as twenty-five manuscripts at a time.
The copy editor marks a manuscript alongside the words in question, or when there is a query for the author or editor, places a colored paper flag at the margin. An example: The copy editor may also make margin notations stating, "Awk" (awkward) or "Meaning?" Since these little love notes are often anathema to authors, tact is essential in fulfilling the copy editor's role.
If convenient, at most publishing houses a meeting is set up between the copy editor and the author before the type is set. When this procedure is completed, the manuscript goes to the production editor, who prepares it for typesetting. When the galleys (proofs) come back from the typesetter, the copy editor (and the author) checks them carefully.
Monitoring this whole procedure is the managing editor, who acts as a traffic cop, keeping the words moving smoothly and on schedule, and acting as a general troubleshooter, especially when a manuscript is late.
Copyediting by a Pen-driven Computer
In the not-too-long ago, copy editors labored over their manuscripts using colored pencils and pens to convey their numerous corrections of an author's manuscript. Later, when authors began transmitting their manuscripts to publishers on a computer floppy disk, copy editors looked at the pages on a computer screen while making changes on the keyboard.
Enter the PenEdit system. An article in Publishers Weekly tells of a progressive new development in computer-driven copyediting. Using an electric pen, the copy editor can "write" the corrections and suggested changes on a pen-driven computer. The manuscript on the disk is altered accordingly. It is then sent to the author for comments and corrections.
In 1993, Viking Press, an early user of the pen-driven computer, copyedited the mystery book Hardscape on the PenEdit system. At the time of this writing, many other publishers are using this innovative development.