As authors, we're a sloppy bunch. Most books take six months or so to write, and it's not unusual to have huge gaps between when a book is started and when it's finished because life, or other projects, get in the way. By the time you're near the end of the book, you don't want to go back to double check things, you don't want to cross-check your research, and you don't want to do anything that's going to interfere with finally finishing the project up. (As I mentioned in an earlier episode, writing a book is a lot like a pregnancy: It's a lot of fun at the conception, and you cruise through the early months, but by the last month it's dominating your life and you just want to get it out. And neither one is likely to support you in your old age....)
All of which is a way of rationalizing the fact that as authors, we're a sloppy bunch.
There's a misconception that editors do a lot of grammar fixing; in general they don't. The editor's job is to make sure your story works and your prose sings, to make sure that you don't accidentally leave out key bridging scenes, and to make sure you don't add giant lumps of indigestible exposition to your story. But it's not the editor's job to catch nagging inconsistencies in grammar usage or descriptions (like when your protagonist's eyes change from blue on p. 3 to green on p. 413). That's up to you, as the author - and up to the copyeditor, who takes over after your manuscript has been edited.
A good copyeditor will make your book dramatically better. A bad copyeditor... well, every writer has bad copyeditor stories which get whispered around campfires (or bars at conventions) to scare young writers.
What Does a Copyeditor Do, Exactly?
The copyeditor does more to a book than just look for consistency errors. Typically, a copyeditor does all of the following things to your book:
Marks up the manuscript for the book designer. The designer will decide on the actual look of the book - fonts, page layout, running heads and folios, etc. - but in order to do that, someone has to go through and identify all the elements which need to be designed, how often they occur, and where they fall in the book.
Creates a stylesheet. A stylesheet lays out all of the elements in the book, all of the grammar rules used, any variant spellings, the names and descriptions of all the characters if it's a novel (as well as the page where they first appear), etc. If it's the second or later book in a series, the stylesheet should incorporate the previous books as well. (Remember that the succeeding books may have different copyeditors, and they'll be relying on your stylesheet to keep the series consistent.) The stylesheet also gives the copyeditor something to check against when she gets the nagging feeling that a character's wife's name has changed midway through the book, or the name of a fort is spelled subtly differently when it turns up 300 pages after its earlier mention, or when a minor character who died in book 1 shows up again in book 2. (Yes, I've encountered all of these problems, along with an author who subtly changed the spellings of all her characters' names between books.)
Fact-checks. Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, the copyeditor needs to keep an eye on whether the author got his facts straight. An implausibility will pull the reader right out of the story. If there are historical names and places used, they need to be checked; you can't assume the author got them right. (I just recently copyedited a beautifully written historical novel in which several names of people and places were consistently wrong and the timeline was screwed up; left uncorrected, it would have badly marred a good book.) Quotes have to be double checked, and the more famous the quote, the less it can be trusted. (Everyone quotes Shakespeare and Dickens from memory, so they're almost always subtly wrong; less well-remembered quotes the authors are more likely to look up.) Do the characters' ages line up right in the story? Do the phases of the moon suddenly change? Does the character keep shooting after that make of pistol is out of bullets? Good copyeditors get a knack for what to look up and what's ok, so the fact-checking doesn't usually bog down the process too much, unless the author has been particularly sloppy. They also tend to collect obscure reference books at yard sales and know exactly where to go (online or off) to verify a key piece of information. (For instance, for a mystery I copyedited, I once tracked down and called a restaurant halfway around the country to verify its menu and prices, which was important to a key plot point in the book - the restaurant was supposed to be the most expensive place in a chi-chi resort town, but in fact the entrees only averaged $7-8.)
Sets grammar rules and consistency. Sometimes the publisher will have a house style that needs to be followed, but usually it's a case of picking the rules and spellings the author uses first or most commonly and sticking with them. Does the author switch back and forth between British and American usage? Are direct thoughts in italics, or not? (What a crazy bunch of rules, he thought.) How are numbers expressed (i.e., spell out everything under ten, and express anything else as a number). Are a.m. and p.m. in small caps? Do abbreviations get periods? There isn't always a "right answer" to these, but a book that skips back and forth between styles will look silly and unprofessional. It may not even register with you consciously, but something will look wrong to you. I have a couple of personal grammar peeves, such as people who modify the word "unique" or fail to use a serial comma. If you're not sure why to use a serial comma, note the difference between (in editrix's famous example) the two versions of one hapless author's dedication:
To my parents, God and Ayn Rand
To my parents, God, and Ayn Rand
What the copyeditor does not do is rewrite the author's prose. The copyeditor's job is to catch inconsistencies, query potential problems, and in general act like a sort of Jiminy Cricket figure to the author. The copyeditor does not get to change the book into the one he would have written, or completely rewrite your prose style.
As the author, you generally get a chance to look at the copyeditor's markup and respond to any queries (for instance, making sure that the hero has enough bullets, and his wife's name no longer changes). You can also overrule the copyeditor on changes. (The Latin acronym "STET," meaning let it stand comes in very handy here. I know of authors who have had STET stamps made, to avoid having to write it all over the place.) If the copyeditor is in synch with the author, there shouldn't be many STETs; mostly your reaction should be, ooops, that's exactly what I meant to do, but I was half-asleep when I wrote that scene.
I strongly recommend that you insist that the right to look at the copyedited manuscript be inserted into your contract. Very few publishers will have a problem with this, although you may only have a few days to look over the copyedit.
There are exceptions to the author's power to overrule a copyeditor; the editor may choose to overrule the author. For instance, a few years back, I copyedited a loathsome piece of jingoistic military fiction. I left the racism intact - that was the editor's and author's call, not mine, and ultimately it's the author's name on the cover - but I did flag the passage about how black people can't swim. The author STETed my correction, claiming that he knew this was true from some buddy of his in the Navy SEALs, but the copyediting coordinator at that publisher - who happened to be black, and a swimmer - overruled his correction.
Copyeditors Gone Wild
As I mentioned above, every writer has a copyediting nightmare story or two. A good copyeditor will dramatically improve your book. A bad copyeditor will, of course, make an equally dramatic difference in your writing....
I can't overemphasize the importance of tact in copyediting. You may be the most incisive copyeditor in the world, but if your query annoys the author (or makes her think you don't know what you're talking about), that STET stamp will come out in a hurry, and your comments will get overruled, no matter how good they are.
Sometimes copyeditors do go horribly wrong, or just aren't right for a book. I once edited a book whose strongest point was the lyrical voice of its protagonist, a 14-year-old Valley kid in California. The copyeditor went through and fixed all the grammar, completely obliterating the protagonist's voice. (I had to go through and unmake all the changes.)
A Navy thriller I worked on once had a copyeditor go through and eliminate all those pesky acronyms, and add in new terms of her own.
A fantasy novelist friend of mine had a copyeditor decide to rename one of her characters throughout, and start arguing with the author about the fine points of grammar in a language the author had made up.
But by and large, the copyeditor will be your friend as a writer - in the way that we all have one friend who tells us things we don't want to hear and calls us on it when we're not making sense. You know, the annoying friend.
Becoming a Copyeditor
Most copyeditors in book publishing are freelancers; only a few houses employ full-time, in-house copyeditors. The majority of copyeditors start out working in some other publishing capacity, and either pick up copyediting work on the side (publishing doesn't pay a lot, so lower-level editors tend to do a lot of freelance work as well), or eventually end up supporting themselves as freelancers. (Many laid-off publishing folks go this route.)
In theory, if you have a thorough grasp of proofreader's marks, a keen sense of grammar and style, and tremendous tact, you can take the copyediting test at any major publisher and get added to their list of copyeditors. In practice, if you don't have someone vouching for you or a reputation in the field for doing consistent work, you're unlikely to get much copyediting. Trust is a really important component of the job, since this is the last chance for most errors to get caught. (The book will still be proofread, but the proofreader is not looking for grammar or consistency errors.) Publishers want to know they're hiring someone who's got their back - preferably someone fast and consistent but with a low enough sense of self-worth that they'll accept the low hourly rates some publishers try to pay.
There are some places that offer copyediting courses geared specifically to book publishing, like NYU. (Many of the students in those courses already work in publishing and need to strengthen their command of proofreader's marks.) Most college copyediting courses are actually geared to journalism and newspapers, and aren't terribly helpful in book publishing. Some book production houses, like New Hampshire's Kossack-run Windhaven Press also offer training to copyeditors. (I used to, but don't anymore, though I do teach a book publishing course every spring at the University of Connecticut.)
Most copyediting for trade publishers is still done on paper manuscripts, rather than onscreen, though a few houses (such as HarperCollins) have committed to digital copyediting systems, or to hybrids such as the "track changes" feature in Microsoft Word. It's a lot easier to miss errors while working onscreen, and it's significantly harder on the eyes (meaning copyeditors can't do as much in a day), and so far the additional errors and time lost hasn't been worth the tradeoff of the extra time and money it takes to input the corrections that have been made on paper. Plus, changes made on paper are significantly easier to read, and can be handled by even the least tech-savvy writer. (And remember that many of the biggest-selling writers are older and less computer savvy than most new writers.)
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
I do still monitor and respond in the previous episodes, so feel free to post questions or comments in them if you'd like. With my classes starting next week, I'll probably shoot for one new entry a week for a while.
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
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