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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Role of the Copy Editor in the Life of Your Book

Linda Rodriguez needed a day off! This blog, she wrote two years ago, was so informative, we decided to run it again. I hope it teaches and entertains. Thanks--E. B. Davis

I’ve just finished responding to copy edits and sent off the manuscript to my editor in New York. This is my third novel and sixth book published, plus I worked for some time as a freelance copy editor for Random House, among other publishers and private clients. So I know a little bit about the copy editing process from both sides, and it seems to me that there’s a huge misunderstanding about what copy editing should be and what it really does, even among (the now mostly freelance) copy editors themselves.

This is not a complaint about the copy editor I just dealt with. As a matter of fact, the idea for this blog came from the fact that she was such a good copy editor, doing all the things a copy editor is supposed to do instead of—as I’ve encountered in the recent past—doing things no copy editor has any business doing. I routinely tell my students that the copy editor is their friend, there to make sure they don’t look like fools or incompetents in public. But recently, I have had problems with copy editors who have left serious errors of continuity or plot holes untouched while trying to rewrite my prose into something much more academic and, in one case, totally passive voice. Fortunately, this most recent copy editor knew what her job was and picked up on errors in continuity, on plot holes, on bits that might have been confusing for readers, and repetitions of words and phrases. She even checked the restaurants I mentioned on the internet for correct spelling of the names. And she didn’t try to rewrite my prose into her own style—she left it in my own.

Most traditional publishers used to have on staff copy editors who were excellent professionals of this type. As the conglomerates have swallowed up publishing, they  got rid of staff copy editors as a cost-cutting measure and moved to outsourcing that task to freelancers. As the essential function they perform was devalued, many fine professionals left the field. There are still expert copy editors out there, but they are often underbid by people who graduated with a general English undergraduate degree and assume that makes them qualified to be a copy editor.

For both traditionally published and self-published authors, a good copy editor is something to be devoutly desired. A good copy editor will make sure that the protagonist doesn’t have blue eyes on page one and brown eyes on page one hundred. A good copy editor will point out that you haven’t shown the reader why the protagonist has come to believe that suspect A is the real murderer. A good copy editor will warn you about the way you keep inserting “just” or “very” or the way your protagonist keeps shrugging in every scene. (I’m a terrible offender with shrugging.) A good copy editor will ask you what happened to the item you made a big deal of in chapter three that was never mentioned again. A good copy editor makes sure your book-child goes out into the public view showered and neatly dressed.

So, here’s to the real copy editors like the one I just dealt with. (I’ve begged my editor for a chance to keep this copy editor forever.) If you get one of the inadequate ones, learn to write STET boldly. If you get one of the treasures who catches your plot holes or chronology glitches before the reader has to see them, clutch her or him to your breast with gratitude. A really good copy editor is worth his or her weight in gems.

What has been your experience with copy editors? Have you read books lately that could have benefitted from a good copy editor?


E. B. Davis said...

Hummmm. Not sure if I understand the first comments, but as they seem positive, I'll let them stand (but you decide, Linda.)

Copy editors are a writer's best friend. I can read and reread my script and still not see inconsistencies in the script. I'm getting better at it, but having that second set of eyes is such a plus.

I'm so glad that you have a great copy editor, Linda, and that you've completed the next manuscript. Your audience is waiting for it!

Jim Jackson said...

As with most writers with some experience under their belts, I have had different experiences with different copy editors. And, as with you Linda, I am most satisfied with my current one. She caught my errors, made suggestions for improvement, told me to rewrite awkward phrases, and knew the difference between writing style and necessary grammar conventions.

I, in turn, conceded all Oxford commas, although I do not agree with their need. I also came to understand the value in my publisher specifying a dictionary to resolve spelling questions (particularly helpful with which words are hyphenated, which conjoined and which separate), and using the the Chicago Manual of Style as the final arbiter (unless in dialogue).

I too have had editors who wanted to change my style, although fortunately I have been successful in keeping my style in tact, it is an added frustration.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I'm glad you found such a good copy editor, Linda. May she be with you for a good long while so you can keep getting excellent books published.

Warren Bull said...

Copy editors are essential. I've had excellent results with K.D. Sulllivan recently. Ramona DeFelice Long and Susan G. Ferguson have made my work better with their skills.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, were there comments before yours? They don't show on my computer.

You're so right that a good copy editor is a writer's best friend. And no matter how long you work at it, there will always be some things you'll miss--but a good copy editor will catch them for you.

Thanks for your kind words about my next book!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Jim. On EVERY LAST SECRET, I had a copy editor who tried to rewrite the whole colloquial first-person narration as if it were a formal academic treatise and turned it entirely passive voice while adding several thousand unnecessary words. I had to STET almost everything.

A bad one's a problem, but a good one's a jewel.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Gloria! I've asked my editor if I can have her from now on, but scheduling may get in the way of that. *sigh*

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Warren. Thanks for passing along the names of yours for those who self-pub and want to find a good copy editor.

Sarah Henning said...

Ooooh, Linda, this makes me so happy. A. That you found a good copy editor and B. That you took it upon yourself to explain what they do.

I worked as a newspaper copy editor for years and now I freelance edit and contract edit for a small publishing house. I get so frustrated when I see people who clearly don't have an editing history suddenly advertising themselves as copy editors. And it's not because I'm competitive or anything, it's more that I'm always worried that self-pubbers will lose money and receive an inferior edit.

If you're reading this and you're considering hiring a copy editor, please make sure to ask about his or her credentials. And, even if they seem sound, you might want to have the editor edit the first few pages of your manuscript to see how he or she works. If the editor balks, walk away. There are plenty of good copy editors out there who want you to make the right choice.

*Steps off soapbox*

Polly Iyer said...

One of my pen name's publishers offers four edits. The third added thirty-one "had"s to a one and a half page flashback. Thirty-one! I hit the roof. Needless to say I rejected all but one, suggested by the fourth editor. I don't think she worked there after that egregious massacre of my book. So yes, Linda, a good copy editor is a treasure.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Oh, Polly, yes! One action scene in EVERY LAST SECRET had 27 "hads" added to a single page. An action scene!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sarah, I know what you mean. A lot of folks without editing experience are hanging out their shingles as copy editors (and as developmental editors) in this economy. Can't blame them for trying, but it makes it difficult for self-publishers to know whether or not the person they're considering actually knows how to do the job. I hate to see people spending hard-earned money to try to do a professional job, only to publish work with errors a good copy editor should have caught.

I think it's something to consider when we moan--as we all do--about the unprofessional work that SOME self-publishers put up. They may actually have tried to do the professional thing and been taken by someone who called themselves an editor (because they thought they were, not knowing what an editor really does).

Linda Rodriguez said...

And to all my self-publishing friends, please note that I capitalized the word "some" in that last reply to emphasize that I was talking only about a portion of the self-published world, not all self-published authors.

Anonymous said...

I dread getting the manuscript back from the copy editior. I have pretty much published with one house, and dopey editing is the main reason I am going to be seeking another outlet (maybe self-publish?) when this last contracted book is done.

One book (not in my main series, thank goodness) has a different beginning, a different end and a different middle, all changed (butchered?) by the copy editor, with the editor in chief's blessings. I really don't consider it my book any more.

Although I have to grit my teeth when the editor wants my illiterate factory workers, prison inmates and bikers to speak the King's English, what really galls me is the "Oh, that's not the way it really happens" comments, esp. in dealing with procedure in situations I've worked with for years. Then I end up doing a lot of research to "prove" the points I already know. And don't usually get any response to that.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Oh, no, KM! How awful!

I know I was set to pull EVERY LAST SECRET from publication (with my agent's approval) rather than let it go with the bad copy editor's rewriting. The copy editor used red for his insertions, and I used green for all my many STETs, so the manuscript looked as if decorated for Christmas. Fortunately, my editor backed me completely. I'm so sorry that your editor allowed your book to be butchered.

Kara Cerise said...

Sadly, I have read books that could have benefitted from a good copy editor.

I'm glad you have a wonderful copy editor who (fingers crossed) can work with you on future books, Linda.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Kara, I have, too. And they're not all by self-published authors, either. The corporate types who took over publishing don't really comprehend the importance of copy editing or the skill and experience it takes to do well. And so they don't value those who have developed those skills and experience. *sigh*

Yolanda Renée said...

So true! A good copy editor is essential! Friends for life!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, Yolanda. Clasp them to your heart!

Unknown said...

A copy editor's mandate also includes keeping an eye out for libel (defamatory untruths that could lead to lawsuits) and errors of fact.

Copy editing services

Anonymous said...

Thanks Linda. It has always amazed me what can sneak into one's own prose. I recently wrote phase for faze. Yes, I know the difference. No, I didn't catch it myself. But as you point out, they do so much more than catch typos. The good ones are truly a godsend--and often the unsung hero of a successful book.

Shari Randall said...

This post shows that the copy editing situation has not improved in the publishing world. A writer I follow on FB has posted a series of "corrections" made by her copy editor that would have been hysterical if they hadn't been so terrifyingly bad. The worst part was how long it took for her publishing house to rectify the situation.

carla said...

A good copy editor is a wonderful thing. It drives me crazy how I STILL find errors in my stuff, after 9,000 sets of eyes have looked at it. ARGH.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

message received!

And yes, I seen many errors in newly published books, not just typos and misspellings but incorrect attributions to 19th century authors.