You, too, need a copyholder: The art of reading writing out loud to edit it

Copyholder (noun): one who reads copy for a proofreader

I noticed it, first, in the original Chicago Manual of Style, with its Notes to Copyholders tucked in the final appendix after notes to authors, editors, and proofreaders.

I thought, perhaps, the editors were referring to the copyrightholder, but no. “Do not read to your copyholder,” advised the 1906 Manual of Style. “She is supposed to read to you.” Hardly advise you’d expect about the ownership of a copyright.

To the dictionary I turned. Turns out, a copyholder was a person who reads text aloud for proofreading (or a device to hold your paper to make it easier to read).

Here was proof of the importance of how words sound. It wasn’t enough, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to have a proofreader scrutinize copy and underscore misprints and omissions. You also needed someone to read to the proofreader, so they could hear how the words rolled off the page, edit them where they didn’t. There was a whole profession built around reading out loud, with motions and signals and an editorial language of its own.

An apprentice, in an editorial department, would “start as a copyholder in order to become conversant with different kinds of manuscript,” suggested 1913 minutes from Commonwealth Shipping Committee Harvard’s _The Typographic Journal_ in 1912 advised editors to remember “the consideration which is due the copyholder. Too often this fellow worker is looked on as a servant instead of an assistant.”

The advice went unheeded. Copyholders were so overlooked, their role was soon consigned to the dustbin of history.

And yet. Reading your text out loud is one of the best ways to edit it. It was one of the core proofreading tips I picked up from interviewing over a dozen writers and editors. “Read it out loud,” suggested Zapier editor Deb Tennen. “Read it backwards,” said Notion content lead Nate Martins. I “have my computer read articles to me,” shared Justin Pot.

“The eye can be fooled, but the ear knows,” wrote Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-editing for Fiction Writers, in advice that applies to writers of all stripes.

So read, out loud. Open your text on your phone or a tablet, or print it on paper, then sit back and start reading.

Or enlist a friend or colleague. Rather than asking them to check your writing, ask if they could read it aloud to you. Suggest you’re cosplaying a turn-of-the-century editorial room.

Or, better yet, enlist Siri as your new Copyholder, and get her read it to you. Select your text and select Speak on your iPhone or iPad; right-click on text then select Speech > Start Speaking on a Mac; enable Text to Speech on your Android phone; or press Windows + Ctrl + Enter to turn on Narrator on your PC. Then sit back and listen as the computer works its way through your words.

Does it flow? Does it sing? Were any words repeated, or skipped over? Did a sentence end without truly ending?

You're listening for "sentences or passages that make you stumble as you read," suggests Duke University's Writing Studio.

If something sounded right, even if it wasn’t precisely correct, it’s likely ok. “Exceptions will constantly occur,” advised the original Chicago Manual of Style. But if it sounded wrong, if you had to go back and re-read, odds are it is wrong, even if it’s technically correct. Time to write and rewrite and revise again until it finally sounds right.

You’ll be amazed at what you find, by reading your text out loud. Things you overlooked in print will jump out, audibly, when you hear them.

You won’t find a career as a copyholder, in the twenty-first century. But the idea behind the role still counts.

Want to write well? Start reading your words out loud. Then publish, and you’ll become a copyholder and a copyright holder at once.

The writing platform for creativity