Monday, February 8, 2016

#10: Beware Your Copy Editor!

Demon, Devil, Hell, Inferno, Lucifer
Welcome to Hades. I'm your new copy editor.
I've been putting off writing this particular post because it was one of the most painful parts of getting published for me. If you're a writer and you feel all alone, clinically depressed, terrified, paranoid, and deeply regret ever wanting to do this in the first place ... you must be copy-editing. (Or copy editing or copyediting ... depending on which copy editor you get!)

Because copy-editing is hell on earth!

Before I go on, I want to pre-apologize to all the copy editors out there. I'm sure you're all nice folks who love your children and take care of your aging parents and do great charity work and plant gardens and walk your dog twice a day and are on the PTA and recycle your bottles and whatnot, but - man - can you make a writer's life miserable. (I'm pretty sure we make yours miserable too! So I apologize for that too!)

Here's how copy-editing works at traditional houses: 

You'll have spent several months going through two to three rounds of 'revisions' with your editor. Any 'mistakes' in your manuscript will not have been flagged because an editor is just interested in the creative evolution of the book. Characterization, plot development, themes, etc.

(That part is no picnic either, btw!) 

But when that's done, you have at least two more rounds of editing to go through with your copy editor. You probably won't ever meet or talk to this person. I didn't even trade a single email or phone call with either of mine. The only thing you'll ever see of them are pencil marks - all - over - your - manuscript.

Even if you're a literary genius without a single typo, there will still be oodles of doodles. Because it's also part of the copy editor's job to work with the production editor (who lays the manuscript out in book form) to prepare it for the final stage of printing. It's a huge, time-consuming job.

Every period is circled. Every italicized word is underlined. 

Em-dashes are marked differently than en-dashes. Bolded or capitalized words are flagged separately and every ellipsis is marked too. Don't even get me started on commas.

Publishing a clean book is a very difficult thing to do (as I'm learning in the indie world) and I'm sure over the years, publishers have learned that the best way to maintain standards is to make sure nothing gets missed before it goes to the printer. So the vast majority of the marks on your manuscript are intended for the production editor and the printer. Unfortunately, I didn't realize this when I received my first copy-edited manuscript.

In fact, I didn't even know this part of the process was next! 

Because there isn't a 'Welcome Author!" kit when you sign a book deal. And once you get started, everyone is too busy to walk you through the process or hold your hand. It's totally sink or swim. Heavy on the sinking. Because here's how copy-editing worked for me ...

I was at home on a cold winter evening, reading up on how to ease the pain of PTSD from editing - but happy to at least be through the process - when a package from my publisher showed up at my door. I tore open the envelope expecting a nice clean copy of my manuscript, maybe with a gold star on it or something. When I saw all the pencil marks, cross-outs, loop-the-loops and margin notes, I nearly passed out.

It looked as if there was more to change than keep the same!

It was my husband who saved the day (and what was left of my sanity) by going online to research copy-editing symbols. So I was at least partly relieved to learn that most of the markings were for the printer.

However, the copy editor is still going to flag all of your spelling or grammar mistakes and also suggest style improvements.

For instance, I was told I use too many ... what are they called again ...? Oh yeah, ellipses. In my first book, I was also told that I overused italics. Something I don't do as much anymore. At least not quite as much;) I also had a tendency to make up the odd word or two - and that doesn't go over well with copy editors at all.

They prefer you to stick to words that actually, y'know, exist. 

Copy editors are also incredibly detail oriented. You could go through a manuscript a thousand times and they'll still find things that seem embarrassingly obvious!

It can really make you feel like a lousy writer. 

Although grammar and spelling mistakes can't be ignored, when it comes to matters of style, the author's preference should prevail. So as you go through the notes, if you don't want to accept a suggestion regarding style, you simply write 'stet' in the margin - which means 'let it stand.'

For instance, one character might have an unusual pattern of speech that gets flagged. If you intended it, you simply write 'stet' beside the note. Or, if you're working on an e-copy, you would 'stet' electronically. I'm sure I drove my copy editors crazy with all the stetting I did. And, yes, stetting is a word.Though only copy editors would know it.

Copy editors also must have unusually large brains. 

They don't just know how to use an Oxford comma or catch a tense change. They can usually spot inconsistencies in everything from quantum physics to history to gardening.

On my second book, my copy editor called me on a particular type of flower I mentioned. "Hydrangeas don't grow that time of year" she wrote in the margin. (Btw as opposed to traditional editors who seem to practice speed-chicken-scratch, copy editors tend to have very neat handwriting, which makes them even more intimidating.) Rather than hydrangeas, she suggested I "use day lilies instead."

I grumbled a bit (it was at the end of the process and my ego was in shreds), but I decided to take her note. But after a little research, I was delighted to scrawl back: 'Thanks. FYI - daylilies is one word.'

Nothing like getting a chance to copy-edit a copy editor.  

But put it this way: if you think finding an agent or a publisher is a humbling experience ... try dealing with a copy editor. My advice to prepare writers for this grueling process is to buy THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE.

Not only will you feel incredibly cool lugging this tome up to the cash register in your local bookstore, it's the style guide most houses use for fiction, so it'll come in handy as you're writing too. (Non-fiction writers might do better with newspaper style guides.) One way or another, it's a good idea to brush up on copy editor's symbols, so you know what to heed and what to ignore.

And if you get a chance to catch a copy editor on something, enjoy it! Because it doesn't happen much! 

Next time ... GO WITH THE FLOW! Working with your production editor! I'm hell-bent on getting you through your first book deal unscathed, so subscribe to the blog to follow along!


  1. Excellent article, thank you. Forwarned is fore-armed :-D

  2. Sounds like an awful experience-so frustrating! That's why, as a freelance copy editor, I communicate openly with my clients, letting them know exactly what to expect and how to proceed. Also, I incorporate their personal and stylistic preferences to ensure their voice is maintained. The author always has final say about which recommendations to accept, modify, or reject. make your words amazing. :-)

  3. Nice, Julia! That's so great!! It must be so helpful to your clients that you're so in tune with them. I'm so glad you're not angry at me!! ;) It was all in fun. I know it must be one of the hardest jobs, balancing proper grammar with a writer's voice. Good for you! And good luck! :)

  4. Informative and funny. Got to love when that happens.