Copyediting *is* refactoring

“What the fuck do you mean by that?”

I shook my hands at my computer in fury, hands clawed in frustration. I was copyediting an article for the International Game Developers’ Association mailing list and the first piece was riddled with run-ons and circumlocution. I’d had a better time editing a submission from a Japanese gentleman whose English, though stilted, was at least charmingly direct.

I considered the last two sentences of the essay carefully, trying to figure out how to reword them and yet capture all their nuances. The first lumbered in at hefty 46 words. Then I glanced over to the last sentence and almost jumped with excitement. In a concluding paragraph two sentences long, the author’s second sentence all but duplicated his first, but with more clarity. I gleefully obliterated the first sentence.

I settled back in my chair, pleased with the simplicity of the solution. It was half the length, captured the major points, and, without the muddle of the first sentence, the author’s analogy didn’t seem overbearing. In fact, it served quite well as a concluding sentence. I was drunk with self-satisfaction.

Then I thought about all the poor programmers forced to read my amateur code and I sobered up. In that moment I realized how much copyediting is truly like refactoring – and how similar code is to literature. Whether it’s code or prose, brevity and clarity are beautiful to behold. Whether code or prose, the author’s intention must match the outcome, and a certain amount of empathy must be had for its audience. And, whether code or prose, it can be a source of great insecurity or great hubris.

My impatience with the essay and its author now seemed rather small-minded. As an author of code, I had surely committed worse crimes and would no doubt do so again in the future. Humbled, I returned to my task: skinning punctuation, paring off words, and chopping whole paragraphs, knowing that others could just as easily dissect my code.

EDIT – This post has been refined and published on Medium: