Tuesday, November 3

Why Copy Editors Drink

I've been busy preparing a presentation for the Indiana RWA Retreat this month, trying to sort out what I want to tell the participants about being a copy editor. My theme is "Why Copy Editors Drink," and my struggle is figuring what the most important information is to impart in my brief time. Here's the thing, a lot of what I do is cleaning up simple errors--stuff that, if writers knew not to do them, my job would be so much less time-intensive and I could focus on the meat of their stories. But I don't want to overwhelm them with grammar rules and stuff that it's my job to fix anyway.

When I get a manuscript from a publisher, it has already gone through the development editor or story editor, whose job is to help the author with story structure and content. So the DE is dealing with things like plot holes, timelines that are inconsistent, and pacing. The DE points out when you're showing instead of telling and help you work out places where your writing has become awkward. The DE tells you if your hero's an asshole (yeah, I had a story editor tell me that once and she was absolutely right!), whether you've started your story in the action or buried it in backstory, and whether you're getting way too wordy. After the DE spends time with your manuscript, she returns it to you for rewrites. Ah, fun! Then, it comes back to her and if she's satisfied that you've gotten the story told as well as it can be told, it come to me, the copy editor.

I'm the cleanup crew. I'm going to find typos; misspelled or misused words; punctuation errors; inconsistencies (hero has blue eyes in chapter 1, but brown eyes in chapter 4--yikes!); timeline issues; passive voice; word echoes; grammatical problems, such as subject-verb agreement or dangling modifiers; hyphen issues; run-on sentences that make no sense, and mixed metaphors. I fix an excess of dialogue tags, query things that seem physically impossible, and question facts you've presented if I've checked and found them to be wrong. One big rule for copy editors is look everything up! That's why I have a library full of reference books and depend on Google for maps, facts, and information. I look up hyphenated words and the spellings of places and people and brand names if you've used them. I keep a "style sheet" for every book I edit, where I keep track of characters' names, place names, spellings I've fixed, and anything unusual about your book.

One of the most important things I keep in mind as I work on a book is author voice. I'm not least bit interested in changing how you write or any of the special little nuances that make your writing different from other authors and I don't want to change your story. I query if something you've written stops me--a character doing something out of character, a situation that confused me or takes me out of the story. If I have to stop reading and ask, "Why the hell did she do that?" then I need to put in a query.

And I've discovered something over the years--a kind tone goes a long with authors. It seems like such a small thing, not trashing your authors, but apparently there are editors who do it. I try to ask my questions kindly, no WTF??? I make useful suggestions and always check that my authors are okay with any major edits I do. It's a flies-and-honey thing, you know?

Why do copy editors drink? It's the little stuff--manuscripts where an author has pressed "Enter" after every line (it's a computer, not a typewriter); where there are two spaces between sentences (one, always one); where the author uses all caps or bold for emphasis (italic only--we get that he's shouting at her), or where an author keeps using the same action over and over and over again. Authors, be kind to your copy editors, take care of the little stuff, so we can take care of all the other things and help make your good story a great one!


  1. Hmmm, I see no mention in there of authors who are fond of the word "though"... Great post, Nan. Something a lot of us need to remind ourselves of about CEs--they ARE our friends!

  2. I love this post, Nan, and not just because now I'm picturing my CEs (and you) with a glass of whiskey (which is probably *not* the drink you were referring to) so they can make a drinking game out of all my whoopsies!

    Seriously, great post, and a good reminder - CEs are a great tool in our publishing arsenal!

  3. Nan, you're work is crucial for a truly spiffy manuscript! I keep a file of writing no-no's I have gathered... It's a lot of tedious search and replace, yet even the most conscientious writer needs a second (or third or fourth...) set of eyes to catch everything!

  4. Nan, I am looking forward to your presentation at the Indiana RWA Retreat. I have lots to learn and am grateful you are willing to share your expertise with all of us.

  5. It's a good thing for all writers that there are people like you who enjoy the details. LOL Because I for one, don't think I'd have the patience for it. Especially for the carelessness that you mentioned. I was going to say stupid but thought I'd be nice :)