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Copy-editing 101 for Authors

Just realised I gave a lot of detail about the copy-editing process, but not much about the big picture. So…

Copy-editing means slightly different things to different people. However, as a rule, it includes both proof-reading (checking for grammar and punctuation errors, logical inconsistencies and awkward/ambiguous phrasing) and formatting using a house style (i.e. a document specifying how different things should be formatted and how ambiguous grammar issues should be dealt with) or an established style (e.g. Harvard referencing, AMA, etc.).

Most publishers have their own house style, which will be broadly in line with one of the major styles of formatting, especially as regards referencing (if this applies).

So, Faber prefers ‘Sonny Rawlins’s pen’ rather than ‘Sonny Rawlins’ pen.’ Also, Faber would prefer ‘it twitched and twisted as if she was trying to be funny’ rather than the traditional rendering of the conditional subjunctive ‘it twitched and twisted as if she were trying to be funny’ (I have a strong preference for the latter so we went with that in the end). Some of the hyphen issues I mentioned before may also be partly house style issues, though it looks to me that it’s a strict adherence to the Oxford English Dictionary rules (the industry standard) for the most part.

Basically, the copy-editor smoothes and tidies in terms of grammar, punctuation, formatting AND content. It’s a pretty tall order.

The tricky bit is how much a copy-editor should comment on content. While I do the odd little bit of copy-editing (if a client asks me to format a reference list or make sure an article is broadly inline with a journal’s house style), most of my work involves more in-depth editing… So it’s expected that I’ll delve into the content quite a bit. But, to be fair, I find it hard not to anyway.

My take on editing of any sort is that if you tell clients and students everything you think could change, then they can examine the possibilities… all the possibilities. All the ways things could be different. Of course, they’ll accept some changes and reject others, but they’ll have had the opportunity to double-check more of the decisions that went into the writing of their work. And I think that’s always a good thing. A comment challenges the way you’ve done something. It makes you think again about whether it is the best way. And why it’s the best way. And that may help you improve other elements of the book or article or whatever the document is.

One of the things that really impressed me about Eleanor was what a light touch she had with her copy-editing. She picked up a lot of little things… but she was very respectful of the book and seemed to have a strong sense of my aesthetic and when I’d make an unusual choice that was entirely intentional. Punctuation is a good thing to look at here because there are rules, but they’re not as rigid as people sometimes think, especially in fiction. For instance, in fiction, it’s fair enough to have sentence fragments.

Amy’s voice. Soft and warm, like the blankets, like the bed.

Amy, not Fiona.

A sigh. My own. The air is hot and sharp with the smell of chemicals.

This could be punctuated in various ways. There are things that can’t and won’t work – though students often think that in fiction you can break all the rules of punctuation, rather than just bending some of them – but there are also plenty of acceptable options.

Before the copy-editing process started, I was worried that my copy-editor would want to change some of these things to other, acceptable options… But Eleanor didn’t touch anything that fell into this category. And I really appreciated that.

Ideally, the copy-editing process should involve dialogue between the copy-editor and author, plenty of compromise and some negotiation. If there’s a rule about something, and there isn’t an acceptable alternative, then don’t fight a change to uphold the rule. If the copy-editor thinks you haven’t been clear, maybe you really haven’t. But just occasionally there will be something you don’t agree on that you think is important, and then you just have to say ‘Please can we keep it as is.’ If you’ve not been difficult, and if there isn’t a true error at stake, it shouldn’t be a problem.

On the whole, though, I’d assume that most comments merit a change, even if it’s not exactly what the copy-editor is suggesting. Maybe she has spotted an error, but the correction just doesn’t sound right to you. So correct the error in a different way. But do correct it.

And there you go. My take on ‘Copy-editing 101 for Authors’.

How about you? Have your experiences been similar or have you had the bad luck to have a heavy-handed copy-editor?