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What a Copyeditor Does

The Author’s Submission

When your manuscript is ready for production, your publisher — or you yourself, if you are self-publishing — will submit it to a professional copyeditor.

A copyeditor works on material that has already been fully developed by its author. The text will have been rewritten, and possibly re-rewritten, to make it is as good as possible. (Good authors make several progressive drafts of their works before submitting them for copyediting, sometimes six or seven cycles.) It’s neither unusual nor inappropriate for a copyeditor to stop work on a manuscript and to return it to its author because it is not yet ready for copyediting.

Your copyeditor is your advocate and friend, not a green-visored gremlin seeking to shred and devour your precious labor, tell you how bad it is, and prevent you from getting it into print. Your copyeditor wants you to succeed as much as you do.

What to Expect

A copyeditor is a professional wordsmith, often with deep field-specific expertise. Most professional copyeditors are devoted readers and are quite well read across a broad variety of interests, and many are authors themselves who would not dream of trying to copyedit their own work.

A copyeditor does far more than merely give your manuscript a superfluous glance, looking for obvious errors and oversights. (See my article Looking It Over, in which I describe attitudes toward copyediting that I encountered while working as a software engineer for Motorola.)

Copyeditors customarily classify the amount of work they will do in any given project as heavy, medium, or light. The level of copyediting needed on a given work is normally determined by the author’s publisher. Authors themselves tend to view their work as close to flawless when submitted, and unless they have published several times before, are therefore inclined to underestimate the amount of production work needed.

The copyeditor’s objective is not to rewrite what has been submitted, but to make the author’s work shine while retaining the author’s voice and style. When a copyeditor is done working on a manuscript, it is ready for the next steps in production.

Reference Works

Every copyeditor uses style guides. Some new authors are surprised to learn that, contrary to what their grammar school English teachers may have tried to drill into their heads, there are relatively few absolute rules in the English language, and that many decisions about good writing are derived from convention and by consulting reference works and examples of good writing.

Several widely popular baseline style guides exist, both general and those with guidelines specific to various fields, such as science, medicine, law, music, fiction, journalism, and so forth. The choice of which to use is normally set by the publisher. It is the copyeditor’s responsibility to get to know it, but it helps if the author does, too.

The style guide I use most frequently is The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition (CMS16), which I have thoroughly studied all 1026 pages of, including the front- and endmatter and index. For fiction, these standards can be bent somewhat to the needs of the work being edited.

But a style guide is not a bible, just a set of standards and recommendations, and may be overridden for any reason agreed upon between the author, publisher, and copyeditor, including “just because.”

Every publisher of size maintains its own style guide. (The Chicago Manual of Style was originally created in 1906 as a guide for the University of Chicago Press, and has been adopted by many publishers of quality books around the world.) In all cases, a publisher’s house style guide trumps the baseline authority, and consists mainly of exceptions to the recommendations given in the baseline. For example, for some reason CMS16 still prefers to spell e-mail with a hyphen, even though most of the world spells it email. There is no law about which way is right or wrong, but if CMS16 is your style guide and you are going to delete the hyphen, that exception should be noted in a local style guide, and should be applied consistently.

It’s standard practice for copyeditors to note non-automatic decisions in a project-specific style guide, and to apply those decisions throughout the project. That style guide is returned to the publisher and author with the copyedited work.

A copyeditor also refers all matters of spelling to an authoritative dictionary. In the United States the one most commonly used is Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Version 11 (Web11). Again, the choice is customarily dictated by the publisher.

Some copyeditors consult a usage guide. My personal favorite is Garner’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition.

Manuscript Preparation Software

The tool authors most commonly use to prepare a manuscript for production is a word processor, usually Microsoft Word.

A Common Mistake

It is a common mistake to try to do too much formatting in advance to make a manuscript look pretty. (And it usually looks simply awful.) Sometimes the copyeditor must begin a job by removing a lot of glop that shouldn’t be there. This can be time-consuming and expensive to whoever is paying for the copyediting.

It’s normal to form ideas about a work’s ultimate look in print, but an author’s first concern must be on getting the content right. A book to be formally published will be assigned a designer and typographer, in much the same way that the copyeditor is assigned.

The designer works from a manuscript that is either free of word processing formatting, and marked up by an agreed-upon system that identifies text by structural elements (titles, headers, body text, tables, footnotes, epigraphs, and so forth), or that makes careful use of word processor styles that use paragraph types named in such a way as to perform the marking process. The designer will then “pour” the text into other software to begin making the object that will eventually be printed.

When you submit a job you will do yourself a great favor by supplying it in 12-point roman type, double spaced, using only a little italics for emphasis and bold for chapter headings and the like. Anything else is likely to be hard work that just gets ripped out.

The Copyediting

A copyediting project includes many though not all of the steps listed below, not necessarily in the order shown. (Much is done simultaneously.) Whether to bother with certain functions is determined in large measure by the decision made in advance by the publisher or independent author as to whether the job requires heavy, medium, or light copyediting.

Here are some (by no means all) of the functions that a copyeditor performs on a manuscript.

Writing

  • Checks writing mechanics: spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage, noting decisions made where no established precedent exists, or where there is good reason for deviating from one.
  • Corrects problems in syntax: word order, agreement of nouns with pronouns, person and number, and verb tenses.
  • Reduces wordiness and redundancy.
  • Rewords clumsy sentences.
  • Fixes inappropriate uses of passive voice.
  • Moves misplaced modifiers.
  • Adjusts unparallel structure.
  • Flags mixed metaphors, illogical similes, and clichés.

Style

  • Makes sure the preferred style for ellipses is used, if present.
  • Makes sure the manuscript uses smart quotes rather than straight quotes.
  • Verifies that numbers have been rendered correctly, also times and dates.
  • Checks that initialisms have been correctly rendered.
  • Verifies that the proper style regarding capitalization is followed.
  • Applies style standards when naming the titles of books, musical works, songs, places, companies, movies, plays, and so forth.
  • Makes sure that dialogue is rendered correctly.
  • Flags inconsistencies in plot and characters in fiction.
  • Makes sure endnotes and footnotes are formatted correctly and that their numbers match.

Miscellaneous

  • Verifies that Web links (URLs) work. (But don’t include links in the manuscript!)
  • Corrects commonly known factual errors, e.g., the poet Cummings’s name should be written as E. E. Cummings, not e. e. cummings, as it has sometimes been incorrectly rendered.
  • Does occasional fact checking, though the amount to be done and the reasons for and methods of doing so can be highly variable, and responsibility for accuracy of statement ultimately rests upon the author.
  • Corrects regional language bias, such as awkwardness from authors whose first language is not English, or use of British English where American English is expected.
  • Flags word choices inappropriate for the subject or intended readers.
  • Adds queries to author or publisher regarding problems that require a decision beyond the copyeditor’s scope.
  • Assures that copyright standards are not violated where quoting from other sources, and notes where permission may be needed to quote material.
  • Checks tables for formatting, and edits their text as any other text.
  • Checks figure and table captions.
  • Informs the author upon return of the manuscript what state it is in: whether it is ready for production, or still needs to have some issues resolved.

When a copyeditor is done working on a manuscript, it is ready to be put through the rest of the production cycle: design, typography, proofreading, and final printing.

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