Dear Writer: Reasons to Love (and Fear) Your Copyeditor
By Carol Fisher Saller
Followed by Q&A
Come a little closer, dears. You see, I understand. I know that as a writer you have mixed feelings about having your work copyedited. You are doubtful and possibly nervous about the process. You would like to know what you can do to prepare for it and what to do if you disagree with the editing. Don’t worry. I’m going to tell you.
Acts of Submission
Excuse me, you say, but is this really necessary? You’ve run the spell checker; you have a degree in English. In fact, come to think of it, every friend you’ve given it to also has a degree in English. You might even have paid a freelance editor before submitting your work. Although it is true that some manuscripts are in excellent shape, in my experience the likelihood that a given project will need no editing bears little relation to the number of times it has been vetted by friends or colleagues or children of the writer. I would go further and venture that if I were to pluck any published story or novel from the library shelf and surreptitiously have it scanned into manuscript form for editing, most copyeditors would still find a fair bit to meddle with.
How can this be?
First, the habits and standards and style manuals of publishers vary. Even more to the point, the preferences and knowledge of manuscript editors vary. A lot. Comma choice alone leaves so much room for discretion that it would be nearly impossible for two editors working independently to punctuate a manuscript of some length in the same way. A certain amount of editing is optional and subjective. Double that for fiction. What one editor considers acceptable is incorrect to another. One reads with his eyes, another with her ears, and they edit accordingly. Some concentrate on logic and flow; some are sticklers for grammar; and some, like an indulgent mother with a sticky toddler, let everything but the most obvious and egregious messes slide by.
Even if all editors were of the same sensibility and training, editing is by nature multitasking, reading at several levels simultaneously—in fact, it’s common for editors to read their manuscripts twice, concentrating on big-picture issues in one reading, details in the other. Inevitably, we are distracted as we read by issues that interest us the most, and, inevitably, we overlook or dismiss some matters as unworthy of attention.
My point is, a manuscript will never be edited the same way twice, and it will never be considered perfect, no matter how many times it’s edited—probably not even by the last person who edited it. (An assigning editor at a famous children’s magazine told me of her exasperation after one of her staff had copyedited the same text in three revisions and kept finding errors. “Stop looking for mistakes!” she yelled. “Think like an editor and just let it go!”)
The second reason that a manuscript must undergo copyediting regardless of its state at submission is that it must be prepared for typesetting. Although a writer under contract is usually given guidelines for formatting and organizing her manuscript, it’s the rare author who follows the guidelines closely enough to deliver a document ready for production. A great deal of the copyeditor’s time must be spent in removing pretty Word styles, redoing weirdly typed block quotations (the kind with tabs at the beginning of every line), and cleaning up whatever else the writer did while trying to be helpful in spite of the guidelines. Writers are endlessly inventive—or ignorant—when it comes to word processing. Years ago, a colleague showed me a book manuscript that consisted of 350 Microsoft Word documents: the author had started a new file each time he reached the bottom of a page.
So when you submit a manuscript (even if your manuscript consists of previously published material—even, I will go further to say, if you are a poet), be prepared for someone to find something that needs changing. And when you read somewhere that writers should try not to take editing “personally,” realize that this is why. A certain amount of copyediting has very little to do with how great a writer you are.
If you work in a specialized area or have unconventional content in your manuscript, prepare to be edited by someone who is not an expert in that area—or a mind reader. If you’re lucky, she will have experience editing related books or articles, but if she hasn’t, she will welcome a page from you with explanations and preferences. (E.g., “The term ‘improvisative’ should not be corrected to ‘improvisational’ or ‘improvisatory.’” Or “Please don’t correct the spellings of place names; they’re supposed to be funny.”)
In light of all this, is it worth the time and money to hire a copyeditor in advance of submitting your work? That depends. On the one hand, if you feel that your writing is in pretty good shape, there’s little point in paying someone to copyedit to a particular style only to have your publisher redo it to a different one. On the other hand, if your readers have been marking a lot of typos and writing “huh?” in the margins here and there, your manuscript might benefit from a pass specifically addressing those kinds of issues.
There are other good reasons to get professional help before submission. If you are submitting work that requires you to identify sources and you aren’t confident that your notes and references are complete and conform to one of the commonly accepted styles (Chicago, AP, APA, etc.), a copyeditor can put things right. If you are unpublished and working on spec, small sloppinesses will make it hard to break in. An editorial eye can tidy up the remaining flaws.
The Waiting Game
While your manuscript is in copyediting—for a day, a week, or sometimes months—it might be difficult for you to keep your hands off it. That’s understandable, and it’s not a terrible thing, but there are two reasons why it would be better if you could let it rest, for now. First, there’s a chance that you’ll merely be duplicating work that your editor is doing, and you’ll only waste her time by asking her to check a list of typos that she’s already corrected. And second, your work will benefit from your gaining a little distance on it. You’ll get a chance soon enough to read the entire thing again when the editing is sent for your approval, and if you’ve been away from it thinking about other things, you’ll return to it with a fresh eye.
It’s possible that even if you’re trying not to think about your manuscript, various corrections, additions, and little improvements will occur to you anyway. Just write them down so you can tend to them when it’s your turn. You might be able to get a sense of whether your copyeditor minds you e-mailing bits and pieces to her while she’s working. I always appreciate having the information right away, so I can incorporate it while the style particular to that project is fully in my mind. Others don’t want the distraction and would rather you make all your corrections later, at one time. Try to respect your editor’s modus operandi.
Occasionally during the down time a writer finds that she’s completely rethinking the piece. It’s the author’s responsibility to alert the copyeditor of the new development the minute it becomes a real possibility. The copyeditor can then decide whether the change in plan is serious enough to warrant running by the boss, the assigning editor, the acquiring editor. The publisher might want to rethink the schedule, and the copyeditor might be asked to put the project aside until everything is resolved. The story will run in a later issue; the novel will deliver in the fall instead of in the spring.
Something you should never do once editing has begun is to make changes to the original e-files in the expectation that you can send them to the copyeditor, who will somehow incorporate this new version into her work. I cannot stress how unreasonable this would be. By the time you send it, she will have spent time cleaning and coding and making countless silent changes to your files. In your new version perhaps you made a change here and there—maybe a dozen tweaks in all—but she will have to start over from scratch, having no way to know what your changes were. (The nature of her electronic cleanup will make a “compare documents” operation nearly useless.) Of course, if I were that editor, and if I were feeling in control and professional, I would just suck it up and deal with the disaster. After all, it’s your work. I want what you want.
But it’s possible that I would be more human than that: it’s possible that I would hate you and lose all interest in your project.
(Just so you know.)
While you were in the process of writing, you may have had the luxury of dawdling. Once your story or novel is in copyediting, the schedule becomes a much more real and serious part of the process, and one that you will have little control over—other than to cause delays when the ball is in your court. Although most writers are eager for their work to appear and will do everything they can to expedite publication, a surprising number are more casual about deadlines and seem to think nothing of racking up significant delays in the return of edited manuscripts or page proofs.
If you are writing for a periodical or any project with a short schedule, the deadlines will be pretty much set in stone; a writer who procrastinates may simply be ignored while her project is either jettisoned or taken over by someone else. So ask when you will be expected to be available to vet the editing or look at proofs, and if anything comes up that you think might interfere with the schedule, give reasonable warning. If your publisher knows in advance about schedule conflicts, she might be able to reshuffle things with typesetters and publicity contacts or move your work to another issue or season. Unexpected holdups will leave everyone in the lurch.
For longer-term projects like books, there are still good reasons to respect your publisher’s schedule, and most of them directly benefit your project. Once a publisher makes a commitment to your book, every department, from editing and design to production and marketing, sets about creating the optimal conditions for its release. The schedule is a small miracle of coordination between departments, and a delay at any point can cause an equal delay in publication or, at worst, will compound into disaster.
Editing as a Gift, Not an Insult
You know what it’s like to come back to a hotel room in the afternoon and find that housekeeping has been there and everything is all fresh and put to rights? That’s how a copyeditor would like you to feel when you see the editing. If you can view extra-duty editing as the mint on the pillow, all the better. What we don’t want is for you to feel insulted that we saw the need for cleaning.
If a manuscript editor has made a smart suggestion, brought clarity to a badly written passage, inspired you with a leading question, or pointed out a flaw in your plot, how are you going to react? I can guess your first thought: you will wish you had thought of it yourself. And almost every writer has been appalled at a boneheaded error that survived all the way to the copyeditor. Your second reaction will be to resent someone else’s having done it (and a mere copyeditor at that), and your third impulse will be to wonder whether it’s fair for you to accept what she has done and present it as your own.
Of course it’s fair. That’s our job. It’s what we hope for. Nothing is more gratifying than for us to receive the manuscript back from a writer with the editing for the most part intact. We don’t feel superior, or think less of you for missing something. You’ve done the most difficult part, researching, organizing, thinking, getting the words onto the page, revising in response to criticism. If we could do that, we’d be writers ourselves. It’s easy for us to read the finished product and pick at the little rough spots.
Two ways you can continue to make things easy for your copyeditor: (1) Respond at least minimally to every question or comment on the manuscript. Even if you decide that your original is correct, a little checkmark beside the query will tell the copyeditor that you read and considered her remarks. (2) Submit lengthy or complex addenda in both hard copy and electronic form. That way your prose will be exactly the way you want it rather than however the copyeditor deciphers your marginal scrawlings.
And here’s a plea straight from the collective heart of copyeditordom: please take a few minutes to read through the cover letter or instructions that your copyeditor encloses with a manuscript or page proofs. And after you read them, follow them. We are continually astonished that grownup professionals, many of whom have probably railed for years at their students for not reading directions, fail to observe the simple instructions for marking up edited copy or proof. This can make a great deal of extra work for your editor. I myself just finished about eight hours (including five on a Sunday) of re-marking proofs for an author who wrote between the lines, failed to flag corrections in the margins, confused his instructions by using the wrong symbols—I could go on and on. I cleaned up the mess myself instead of sending it back because I was getting ready to leave on vacation and the deadline was an important one.
Just because there’s a cleaning crew doesn’t mean you get to throw food on the floor.
“Ils Ont Changé Ma Chanson . . .”
If all goes well, you’ll be happy with the editing of your manuscript. But what if you aren’t? What if you start reading and right away you see that you’ve been terribly misunderstood?
Don’t panic. Everything that has been changed can be changed back, and you should assume that your editor will be willing to do so. Small matters of style are most likely to be negotiable. A researcher and copyeditor at one national magazine told me that after John Updike complained about the house spelling of “kidnaped” and “kidnaping,” the publisher changed the stylebook to Updike’s preferred “kidnapped” and “kidnapping.” Even if you aren’t a John Updike, you still might get what you want if you ask.
Look at an offending edit and figure out why the editor thought the text needed help. There will usually be something wrong that needs fixing: after all, if the editor misunderstood you, other readers may, too. If you don’t like the editor’s solution, figure out a better one and write it in. If you are convinced that the original wording is the way you want it, mark a row of dots under everything you want restored, and write “stet” beside it. And unless you want to go another round on the issue with the editor, pencil in a brief explanation.
Although you will likely find your copyeditor willing to restore almost everything you insist upon, it’s usual for there to be a few matters she will want to discuss further. If there were places where you simply wrote “stet” without addressing the problem in the writing that she was trying to fix, the problem will still be there. She may write back explaining the problem and asking you to find a way to fix it. You may be tempted to dismiss her perception of a problem as imaginary, but that would be a mistake. If one reader stumbles, others may too, and you would do well to address the issue.
In the extreme circumstance that the normal process of negotiating does not induce your copyeditor to undo her editing, you may have to go over her head with a complaint. Please consider this a last resort, after trying first to resolve things with the editor directly.
On the other hand, if you’re happy with the editing, feel free to say so—to the copyeditor herself, to her employers, or in the acknowledgments section of your article or book. Without face-to-face contact, we can’t always guess how our authors really feel. Acknowledgment—or the lack of it—often surprises us. The experience described by a colleague may be typical: as often as not, a writer whose manuscript needed almost no work will praise him effusively, while an author of something he sweated blood cleaning up will overlook him entirely.
Goodness knows, copyeditors aren’t in it for the glory—but when we believe we’ve brought significant improvement to a project, it can make our day to learn that the author thinks so too.
There. Do you feel better about being copyedited? Okay, then, let go of the paper. It’s going to be fine, I promise! Come now, let go . . .
Adapted with permission from The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Carol Fisher Saller is a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A. She is the author of The Subversive Copy Editor and several books for children, including Eddie’s War, forthcoming at namelos.
Q&A with Carol Fisher Saller
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
Foodstuffs don't have much of a future, so I would not be a food voluntarily, but to be a good sport I'll say a fine English ale: I would slide down easily, not get chomped on, and, in a way, have something of an afterlife.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
That's easy. The pizzeria Il Re di Napoli in the Piazza Ducale in Naples.
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
I'm impressed that you picked up on that. It's true that I've felt guilty since 1978 when I quit reading War and Peace 14 pages from the end, but by that point Tolstoy had wrapped up the story and was just rabbiting on about his philosophy of history. I think I've been trying to atone in subtle ways ever since.
What can you tell us about the piece we’re publishing?
A chapter for writers wasn’t part of the original outline for The Subversive Copy Editor, but it finally occurred to me that copyediting can’t happen without them. At that point I realized that I would have to civilize writers, as well as copyeditors, in order to bring peace to publishing.