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?