A Writer’s Guide to Understanding the Copyeditor

by Terry McGarry

Originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Spring 1995. Copyright © 1995 Terry McGarry. Reprinted with permission.

Many copyeditors prefer to spell the word “copyeditor.” I laughed when I got page proofs of a short story I had written about a copyeditor: the anthology’s copyeditor had changed my character into a two-word protagonist. As author, I could have stetted my spelling, but I deferred to house style.

After you have delivered a finished manuscript, and usually after your editor has gone over it, your publisher’s managing editor assigns it to a copyeditor.

The copyeditor prepares the manuscript for the typesetter, proofreading for typos and keying design elements. She also styles the manuscript, making sure that its spelling, punctuation, usage, and fonts are internally consistent and follow the publisher’s house style. She checks for faulty grammar. Depending on the latitude afforded by the publisher (and whether the editor requested a light or medium copyedit–fiction never gets a heavy copyedit), she will either recast grammatically incorrect sentences, shuffling the words into syntactic order without changing them, or she will suggest possible fixes in a query. And she keeps an eye out for errors of logic and continuity, querying things that seem physically impossible or that violate the internal logic of the book’s universe.

The copyedited manuscript is usually reviewed by people at the publishing house–the editor, the managing editor’s staff, or both. Often the author gets to see it as well. The copy editor’s queries are answered (called “deflagging” if queries have been written on Post-it Notes stuck to the pages), and if she has made changes the author or editor objects to, those changes are changed back. The manuscript then goes to a type house, where typesetters generate galleys or page proofs; these are read against the copyedited manuscript by one of the publisher’s freelance proofreaders.

Your copyeditor should not be rewriting your sentences for political correctness or because she thinks it sounds better her way, or rewriting ungrammatical sentences that are complex enough to require a phrasing decision. (One of prose’s beauties is its infinite malleability, the myriad ways in which a thought can be expressed, and even the most basic grammatical error can have several potential solutions.)

The freelance copyeditor gets two or three weeks to prepare a manuscript. She works at home or in a private office rather than in the publisher’s offices. She sits down with the edited original (or sometimes a photocopy of it); a sharp colored pencil (everyone who works on a manuscript uses a different color, so that marks can be identified); a copy of the publisher’s house style sheet, if one is provided (these can run from two to twenty pages); and the publisher’s preferred dictionaries and style manuals (usually Web 10, Web 3, and The Chicago Manual of Style). She has no idea, aside from genre, what kind of book this will be; unless the book is one of a series or written by an author whose work she’s familiar with, she comes to the writing style and the imagined scenario completely cold.

Her library usually includes a hodgepodge of reference materials–medical dictionaries, foreign-language dictionaries, dictionaries of quotations, encyclopedias, other style manuals, books on sports and fashion and the military and science, atlases, city street maps. The cardinal rule of copyediting is Look Everything Up. The copyeditor must know where to look things up, and how to find out where when she doesn’t know. She’s not far from a phone, so she can make fact-checking calls as the need arises. She looks up every compound word, every brand name, every geographical and biographical name. If the book describes routes through existing cities, she makes sure the streets are contiguous; if the routes are through imaginary places, she’ll sketch a little map. She will check quotations, foreign words and phrases, even such things as whether a constellation is visible from a certain point on Earth at a certain time of year.

She keeps several lists: one of design elements (front-matter heads, epigraphs, part and chapter heads, section heads, extracts, footnotes, tabular material, artwork, line-for-line settings), one of words (preferred spellings, invented words, foreign or alien words, specially capitalized words), one of proper names (characters, places, organizations, starships, pets and horses, alien races), and one of usage (which numbers are spelled out, whether the serial comma is used, how possessives are handled, whether a full sentence after a colon is capped). Every entry on these lists notes the page of first occurrence in the manuscript–and in the copyeditor’s working list, usually several pages of occurrence, in case the author later starts treating an element differently and she has to go back. When she is finished, she will alphabetize and type these lists and submit them with the finished job.

She usually also keeps several miscellaneous lists for her own reference, to keep track of what people look like, which starships are in which fleets, the complexities of tribal relationships–any of a thousand things that might pose problems.

She keys the manuscript as she goes, marking the design elements for the compositor, as well as qualifying dashes–em-dashes, en-dashes, end-of-line hyphens–and insuring that italics and small caps are correctly applied and clearly marked. She makes sure that quotation marks aren’t missing, that words or blocks of text haven’t been dropped or repeated.

She watches for typos, misspellings, and incorrect punctuation, as well as grammatical problems such as dangling participles, noun-verb disagreement, faulty parallelism, unclear antecedents. She also watches for unintentional puns, double entendres, or embarrassing mixed metaphors, and queries them; and she’ll query if a word or phrase is constantly repeated, on a page or throughout the whole book, listing all the occurrences.

Lastly, she reads for sense, continuity, and logical consistency, and queries anything that doesn’t seem to add up. She visualizes what’s going on, and applies common sense to everything as she reads.

Copyeditors must follow the publisher’s rules without compromising the author’s work–and without letting any mistakes get through. They are classic middlepeople. They have to please a publisher who wants an error-free book that conforms to house style, and an author who wants nothing changed but the mistakes (and assumes that the copyeditor will be able to tell a mistake from something intentional).

A copyeditor familiarizing herself with an author’s style is a little like a detective reconstructing motivations from a limited number of physical clues. From the printed elements in the manuscript, the copyeditor identifies the rhythms of the author’s prose, the way he uses modifiers, his punctuation preferences. She can thus avoid breaking the author’s style in imposing house style. Every page entails a dozen judgment calls, as the copyeditor weighs various style precedents against the book’s prevailing usage. While she may sometimes make the wrong decision, she is keenly aware of her responsibility to the author’s intent.

There are as many ways to fail as a copyeditor as there are to fail as a writer. Because copyeditors are trained for consistency, some become inflexible and allow the writer insufficient leeway for personal style and poetic license. Some copyeditors are too passionate about their political agendas and impose them on the author’s work. Some lack confidence and overquery; some could phrase their queries with more tact. But most copyeditors are careful people who got into their line of work because they love words and want to see a clean book.

Fiction copyediting requires a light touch, a fine sense of when to leave things alone, and an ear for style. Many journalistic copyeditors are extremely uncomfortable working on fiction; they’re afraid to change anything and they’re afraid that if they don’t correct what they perceive as errors they will have failed to do their job.

Speculative fiction is particularly challenging to copyedit. On the most basic level, it’s full of made-up words and unusual names. Most speculative fiction reflects the evolution of language: it will include new words, slang, and acronyms, words spelled in a new way, or even an entirely futuristic narrative voice. High fantasy will include archaic words and syntax and variants thereof. Alternate history and hard SF, because they manipulate established facts, require specialized fact checking.

On a higher level, SF is demanding on the copyeditor in the same way it is demanding on the reader and the author: each new novel presents its own custom-made universe, which takes time to understand thoroughly. The copyeditor must learn the details and limitations of that universe in order to be sure that the scenario’s own rules have not been accidentally broken. Think of how much work you put into world building–perhaps years of research and backgrounding. The copyeditor has at most three weeks to learn your world inside out, so she can double-check that it’s functioning just the way you want it to.

For these reasons, many copyeditors refuse to work on SF–and the ones who choose to work on it, because they care about the genre and their craft, are truly more inclined to be an author’s ally than her enemy.

Here are some things you can do to aid the copyediting process (not necessarily to make the copyeditor’s life easier and her work better, but to avoid misunderstandings that will aggravate you):

Keep your own lists of character and place names, invented or archaic words, and preferred spellings; print them out and submit them along with the manuscript. Proofread them carefully so that the copyeditor won’t wonder whether you decided to change a name when you wrote the list but didn’t mark it in the manuscript. By default, the copyeditor will choose the spelling that predominates in the manuscript, which may not be the one you really prefer, or will just stick with the way the first occurrence was spelled.

Submit a list of slang, jargon, acronyms, etc., and what they mean. For the reader, a gradual, unexpository introduction to the details of your world is part of the enjoyment, but it would help the copyeditor immeasurably to understand the details right off the bat.

Write a general note to the copyeditor. Try to describe your idiosyncrasies of style. Are comma splices an integral part of the rhythm of your prose? Point that out. If you have strong preferences regarding usage, state them, and she’ll incorporate them into the book’s style sheet. Let her know if you’re following a dictionary other than Webster’s–say, Random House or American Heritage.

Be aware of the rules of grammar and punctuation, and when you break these rules for a reason, put three dots under the occurrence, to indicate to the copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader that you meant to do it this way and it should be stetted. New comment: Don’t put dots under every line of the entire manuscript. That won’t work. If you really feel that absolutely nothing should be changed–and be aware that that would include inadvertencies–discuss it with your editor; if she agrees, they’ll include a note in the copyeditor’s instructions.

When you’ve finished writing, go back to the beginning of your book. See if you took to capping or hyphenating or italicizing things later on when you didn’t start out doing so. (Do your characters wear grav boots in Chapter One, grav-boots by Chapter Eight, and gravboots by Chapter Twenty?) Writers often establish their distinctive style and treatment of words during the process of writing, and the preferred style dominates only toward the end, when the writer has settled into the work and made final–and possibly unconscious–style decisions. Some examples of decisions it’s helpful if you make early and stick by:

  • Are you setting subjective, first-person thoughts in roman or ital?
  • Are you capping the word “Human” as you do the names of your extraterrestrial or magical races, or would you prefer to keep “human” lowercase but uppercase “Terran” as the analogue of “Xerxian”?
  • Are you using the serial comma or not? Do you prefer “gray” or “grey”? (House style may force the copyeditor to insert the serial comma or spell it “gray,” but in case you sell to a house that follows author preference in such matters, make your preference clear.)
  • Do you want to set all non-English, non-Standard, non-Terran words in ital (which is what the copyeditor will do if you don’t specify), or do you want, say, just the first occurrence of such words to be italicized, but the words to appear in roman thereafter, to reduce their “alien” feel?
  • If you are still using a nine-pin dot-matrix printer, and can possibly afford to upgrade, do so. It’s tough to tell an “e” from an “a” in nine-pin printouts, especially photocopies; and reading such printouts is taxing to the eyes, which means that the copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader will miss things. Turn hyphenation off, so that if the copyeditor sees an end-of-line hyphen she will know that you meant it to stay in the word.
  • Try not to succumb to the fun of fancy fonts or the elegance of paper-saving small fonts. Straightforward Courier 10 (Courier or Courier New, 12-point size) is the easiest to read, and leaves room enough for inserting marks. In smaller fonts like Times Roman, the correspondingly tiny punctuation is likely to be missed or misread (and is often overprinted entirely by underlining). Underline for emphasis rather than using an italic font; the copy editor will just have to underline all the ital text anyway, and in some fonts ital is tough to distinguish from roman, particularly for short words like “I.” Avoid sans-serif and condensed fonts, where some characters are indistinguishable (I and l and 1) or run together to look like something else (r + n = m). Turn right-justification off.

New note: Please go into Preferences in your word-processing software and turn off smart quotes, smart ellipses, smart em-dashes, and any other automatic format changes your software commits by default. Smart quotes aren’t; faux-typeset ellipses come out too jammed together to mark clearly for the typesetter; a typeset em-dash will come out looking more like a hyphen in Courier.

If, for some reason (e.g., a revised chapter that came out shorter), the manuscript’s pagination is not strictly sequential, make a note at the bottom of the page before the break: “p. 251 follows,” say, on page 234. Usually it’s apparent whether such gaps represent missing pages, but a note will save the managing editor a lot of scrambling after the copyeditor calls to ask for pages she hasn’t got.

Don’t go ballistic over stupid queries. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and it’s a brave copyeditor who risks exposing her own ignorance so a potential error doesn’t slip through.

Here are some mistakes often found in manuscripts:

  • Commonly misspelled words misspelled. (There are lists of these in many reference books, but here are a few: accommodate, supersede, embarrass, harass, feisty, inadvertent, ophthalmologist, occurrence, camaraderie, desiccated, forgo [abstain from], millennia, liquefy, rarefied, fluorescent, inoculate, stratagem.)
  • “Lay” used as a transitive verb in the simple past: “Yesterday he lay the book on the table.” He lay on the bed yesterday, but he laid the book on the table.
  • “Lay” used as an intransitive verb in the present or progressive: “He lays down on the bed”; “He was laying on the bed.” He lies down on the bed now, he is lying on the bed; he lay down on it and was lying on it yesterday.
  • Characters’ names, physical characteristics, or gender changing in midstory (not by marriage or witness-protection program or hairdresser or plastic surgeon or sex-change clinic); dead characters reappearing (not by cloning or reanimation or coroner’s error); unrelated secondary characters having the same first or last name.
  • Incorrect subjunctives. The restrictive “that” and nonrestrictive “which” reversed. “Less” and “fewer” used incorrectly. Dangling participles and unclear antecedents. “Smile” or “frown” as a verb of utterance.
  • Number of items or people changing for no reason (two horses plus five horses becoming a group of eight on the next page). Continuity errors (empty drinking vessels being picked up and drained).
  • Third-person-narrative paraphrasing of thoughts underlined or italicized (with no emphasis intended).
  • “He thought to himself,” “opening gambit,” and similar redundancies. (That telepathy might make it necessary to specify whether a character is thinking to himself or to someone else is a small example of how SF copyediting is different from general- fiction copyediting.)

There are, of course, more of these. But that’s why there are copyeditors. The more problems a writer can identify and fix before the copyedit, the better; but writers have other things to worry about.

Do copyeditors and writers have an intrinsically antagonistic relationship? From the stories that circulate at conventions and on-line, it may seem that way; but in fact they need not have. The copyeditor fulfills a support function–backing up the author. She’s on your side.

A writer, at least while writing, is concerned with plotting, characterization, phrasing. And the writer will always have blind spots about her own work. After I write, I do a second pass in “copyediting mode,” and I still miss things. Your workshop group or friendly second reader will also miss things, and so will your editor. Copyeditors read specifically for the nuts-and-bolts mistakes that are potentially the most embarrassing. And copyeditors, too, are backed up–by the publisher’s in-house editorial staff, by the typesetters, by the proofreaders.

A lot of people pull together with the aim of making your book perfect; yes, that’s our job, what we’re expected to do in return for a paycheck, but it should make you feel pretty good anyway.

Related sites:

The Slot: A Spot for Copy Editors
Copy Editor (link no longer valid)
The Editorial Eye (link no longer valid)
The Word Detective