As a copy editor for the SAMS imprint of Macmillan Computer Publishing, I spent just about all eight hours a day editing text in Microsoft Word. First and foremost, I was looking for typos, misspellings, and bad grammar. But here's the twist: These were books about how to program a computer, so I could literally read sentence after sentence without really knowing what they meant. Add to that the fact that many of our writers were not native English speakers, and even those who did speak the language were techies who managed to butcher it all the same. So there was a lot of head-scratching. Eventually I figured out how to tell whether the sentence was grammatically correct, anyway, even if I never really figured out what was being said.
The other perplexing concept thrown my way was that of "consistency." At MCP, I learned that they were really big about making sure that if, for example, you said "coauthor" in one paragraph, you didn't say "co-author" in another. Both can be considered correct, but you have to choose one and stick with it. So we had sheets of paper called style sheets where we recorded our choices, and then used electronic searches to make sure that we did the same thing throughout all the chapters.
We also learned to apply special formatting to literal words you'd find in computer programming code: keywords, subroutines, etc. We had to underline each computer word and then it was set in a different font, to indicate to the reader that it was part of the code.
Another concept I was introduced to was "formatting," or tagging text. We had to apply a predefined style code to each paragraph, heading, etc., to show the layout program how we wanted it to look. So first-level headings were tagged as H1, regular text paragraphs were BT, code lines were C1, and the final code line of any program was C2, which built in an extra space between the end of the program and the next paragraph. This was a tough concept to "get," but it's really similar to modern HTML tagging.
What I learned as a copy editor formed the foundation for every other job I did later. I still use those skills every day. Being a copy editor demanded patience, perseverance, attention to detail, reading comprehension, logic, and focus. People's eyes get tired after looking at the screen for hours on end, and they get the urge to get up and wander. So I really had to fight that and stay glued to my computer.
Tomorrow I'll talk about the next step up the ladder: production editor.