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Insider Secrets of Being a Copyeditor

Welcome to Bolt’s insider secrets series! The Insider Series will take you behind the scenes into the worlds of writers from different industries. Here, you’ll find out everything from what their jobs are like to how to get started in their field.

copyeditor tan keng yao

Tan Keng Yao, Freelance copyeditor/writer

For more than a decade, Tan Keng Yao has held the appointment of Subeditor at Singapore Press Holdings. She is now a freelance copyeditor and writer that contributes to a variety of publications from My Paper to the parenting column in The Straits Times.

It has been a long 14 years at SPH for you. How did you arrive at the decision to switch to freelance work instead?

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Photo from SPH

I enjoy my work at SPH as a sub-editor but I also wanted to try something else. So I made a switch from full-time work to part-time work, doing freelance copyediting and writing on the side. It allowed me to experience the best of both worlds.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve taken away from your time in SPH?

The need for accuracy, as well as details, details, details! Accuracy grounds the story in credibility while details flesh out the story and bring it to life.

How do you think the way readers consume content has changed over the years?

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People now have less time and a much shorter attention span as compared to before. When they read, they tend to skim rather than read in depth, so writing needs to be clean, fuss-free and to the point.

People also have many more platforms to get their news and content from, so content will need to be consistently strong and compelling to draw repeated readers.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers make?

Not organising information properly, which, in turn, makes the story hard to understand. If the story is not immediately clear, readers may just give up rather than try to decipher what’s going on. Also, sometimes, writers omit details that are crucial to the understanding of the story, which leaves a reader with more questions than before.

Do you enjoy writing or editing more? What are the merits and challenges of each?

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I enjoy both but each comes with its own challenges. The challenge in copyediting is trying to make copy clearer and more readable when there are not enough details to go on. I have to either ask the writer for more information or search for it myself.

Another challenge is making sure I don’t accidentally change the meaning of text while rewording sentences or reorganising information. A challenge of writing is recognising my own blind spots and making sure I am not doing things like leaving out crucial details, and that I am organising information properly.

We hear life is pretty tough at a media company, for example, having to hit daily deadlines. How do you cope with the challenges?

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You have to learn to prioritise, and also focus. It gets better with practice. Also, coffee. Plenty of coffee.

Can you share with us some of your most memorable assignments? What made it special?

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For a while last year, I wrote a fortnightly parenting column, Mummy Chronicles, in SPH’s freesheet My Paper, in which I recounted escapades with my now six-year-old son. The columns polarised readers, who either supported me or hated me very much, leaving me comments such as “I pity your husband”.

I think the worst thing for a writer is to not have anyone read his or her writing, so I’m grateful that people read my columns, even if they vehemently disagreed with me.

What’s the most meaningful thing about being a copyeditor?

The satisfaction of transforming copy into a piece that tells a real story and is useful to readers.

Are there any essential texts or articles you would recommend to novices?

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William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and The Elements Of Style by E. B. White and William Strunk, Jr. These two books bring you back to the basics of good writing.

What would your ultimate goal be as a copyeditor?

Clean copy that gets to the point and yet entertains.

How do you think the next generation of journalists should aim to change journalism in Singapore?

We need more investigative and explorative pieces. It is not just enough to present the hard facts but to delve into the whys and hows of issues.

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