Saturday, January 1, 2011

How to Respond to Copyeditors' Marks

What prissy, manual-of-style-snorting psycho with an OED up her butt made all these marks on my manuscript? With the exception of a few typos, those quote-unquote errors are in fact my quote-unquote writing style, dammit. Has the copyeditor ever heard of colloquial speech? If not, I'd be happy to introduce her to some choice examples. Just give me her phone number.
*$#@*!,
Your author

This is a common and understandable reaction to copyediting. It is not the correct reaction. But perhaps your editor, overburdened as she is with titles and bureaucratic hoo-ha, has forgotten to let you know what your response to the copyediting process is supposed to be.

When the copyeditor marks everything that could conceivably be called an error and questions the niggliest little things, she is doing her job.

She does this so that author and editor can be sure that any non-standard choices that were made in the writing of the manuscript were made deliberately, for the right reasons. Your role is to stet every instance in which the copyeditor thought maybe this might have been a mistake... but in fact you know it wasn't. Of course your role is also to ask yourself if occasionally your non-standard choices are getting in the way of your writing's clarity, and to agree to the changes to the actual mistakes that are inevitably in your manuscript somewhere.

In this way, you and your editor can go forward with publication in the sure and certain knowledge that when readers gripe about your bad grammar on page 57, or the egregious typo on page 104 (as they will, regardless of the perfection of your manuscript, trust me), it will be the complaining reader who has screwed up, not you. Isn't that reassuring knowledge? And it's because the copyeditor is such an obsessive-compulsive pain in the ass.

So when you get a manuscript back full of little red or blue marks and comments that you find persnickety and annoying, remember the peace of mind the copyeditor is offering you. You don't have to agree with everything she marks (even she may not). You just have to take a little time and check.

34 comments:

Khanh Ha said...

Straight and true!

Well, you can always write your copyeditor as Hemingway did to one of his critics, 'I don't really think of you as a critic--no disparagement.'

Editorial Anonymous said...

twitter has kindly pointed out a misplaced apostrophe. even editors sometimes need editors!
thanks, guys.

Deb Salisbury said...

A now-published friend came unglued over her copyedited manuscript. Her editor just told her to stet anything she disagreed with, but didn't tell her why all those marks were there.

Her copyedits make sense now. Thanks!

R.J. Anderson said...

I have now gone through copyediting on four manuscripts and never knew this. I mean, I knew I could stet things that the copyeditor had misunderstood, and I knew it was a good idea to rework passages s/he found unclear, but I thought I was supposed to give in if s/he wanted to change my punctuation or grammar, even if the changes looked all wrong to me, or spoiled the tone and rhythm of the sentence. I feel so liberated now!

It's incredible how much about publishing that editors and other publishing staff often take for granted, that the average author just doesn't know -- and even worse, often doesn't realize that she doesn't know. There are a lot of stressed and confused new authors out there who could use a handy guide to What Publishers and Editors Really Mean When They Ask You To Do That Thing...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wow, this is an excellent explanation. Coulda used this a couple of months ago!

Sam Hranac said...

2011 is going to be a good year. EA is back and on track!

Dark Angel said...

This advice can also be applied toward crit partners, too. Thank for the post. I'm gonna put a link to it from my blog. :-)

etlhoy said...

I have a dilemma from the opposite side of this equation. I am not a professional anything to do with writing, but an acquaintance recently emailed me the first chapter of a story, and I don't know exactly what to do with it. I am the sort of person who *notices* all those things a copyeditor is supposed to, but I don't want him to feel insulted if I return his writing covered in red marks (particularly given that he is an English teacher). The chapter also contains a few flashbacks and such, and I feel the chapter would be considerably more readable and interesting if they were in a different order. This is compounded by the fact that I don't know how to say that his love of Hemingway seems to have lead him too far down the path of minute descriptiveness and multiple metaphors for the same thing.
I think with appropriate revisions it would be a really good first chapter, but I really need help figuring out how to express that positively enough that he'll think about the suggestions rather than getting offended.

E.M. Kokie said...

Great post. It's amazing how changing perspective can totally change both the emotional reaction and the end result. And your explanation makes the prospect of copy edits less daunting. Thanks for this one.

And welcome back. Hope the Imperial Forces of Overwork are in retreat.

Rose Green said...

My husband is going through copyedits with his first book right now, and this is timely. Good to know that the CE is flagging possible issues, not flat-out ruling the literary world.

Jane Steen said...

Thanks for a great post, which prompted a blog post of my own. You can get there by clicking on my name, I think.

jjdebenedictis said...

Gooooooood point, and one I'd not considered before--that you don't have to make the changes. Thanks for illuminating this for us.

catdownunder said...

Yes, reminder to self...be grateful that there is someone out there to remove stray cat hairs!

Virginia said...

As one who used to do the copyedits and then get yelled at by authors, I thank you. Even though I am out of that game now, it's important for authors to know we don't mark things because we hate them, and sometimes they are wrong. (And sometimes, so are we.)

Wendy Qualls said...

@etlhoy - I tend to think of peer-critiquing someone's manuscript as having an "edit limit." That is, I'll fix X% of the errors - the most egregious ones - and let the smaller ones slide. For some manuscripts, this means I fiddle with commas and vocabulary choices, while for others it means the only red marks on the page end up being "I think you could consider making your hero kill fewer puppies in this scene - it might make him more likable." If the errors are so bad the whole section needs to be rewritten anyway, there's really no point in quibbling whether "nobody" or "no one" fits better with the flow of the sentence in paragraph 3 . . .

Meg Spencer said...

@etlhoy: I do a fair amount of editing for friends and for work, and I like to talk to people first if they haven't had me read their work before so they know what they're in for. I won't disregard anything that's actually an error, or that I'm fairly sure is an error, but do try to be very clear when I think something might be a stylistic choice, or when there's some question about it.

Also some of the larger comments (like the Hemingway thing) are sometimes better received in person rather than on the page, as that's the kind of thing that might call for a certain amount of discussion.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Thanks, EA. Wicked start for the new year.


@etlhoy - It helps me when I ask the other person what type of feedback they are looking for, i.e. line edits, overall comments, etc. Then I do a sandwich of positive, critical, positive. Lacking a specific request, sometimes the first go round is better with broad statements like you made in your comment. Something like this.

I think with appropriate revisions it will be a really good first chapter. I feel the chapter would be more interesting if the flashbacks were in a different order. State order you like. Your love of Hemingway leads to repetitive descriptions with multiple metaphors for the same thing. You might consider trimming some of those. End with second positive comment.

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

Great post, and so glad you're back EA!

JIM LOOMIS said...

I came to have great appreciation for the copy editor who worked on the MS for my book about train travel. She was right most of the time, too ... except when she changed 'brakeman' to 'brakeperson'!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I was a features writer for a newspaper for years. There was one copyeditor who, at times, drove me crazy with what seemed nitpicking. Later, when newspapers downsized and so many people were laid off, I found myself wishing for the days when a copyeditor had my back. The job they do is difficult and unsung.

working illustrator said...

I'd like to contribute to this discussion but am still a little giddy that this blog is back in action.

Welcome home!

TK Roxborogh said...

I have a crush on my copy-editor. I think she is a demi-god or has superpowers. She kinda looks like a cute girly version of Clark Kent. I NEVER argue with her. Okay. I did once. We wrestled over God/god in a sentence. I think I won that fight but I think she was right - I'm too scared to open the book and see.

So happy you're back EA
BTW verification word is 'ingestion' heh heh

Anonymous said...

I *so* wish I knew this when the copy editor started killing jokes in my first book. Newbie that I was, I thought my editor had read and agreed with the proposed changes, so I was hesitant to fight them. Then she started messing with the dialogue and showed that she didn't fully grasp the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs, and that's when I started standing my ground -- too late, alas, for the already murdered jokes whose lives are frozen forever in manuscript form, never to be wrapped in the eternal warmth of book covers. O, woe!

And welcome back, EA! I kept checking back, hoping you might one day return, and my faith has been rewarded. I hope the new year provides some unexpected joy in your work.

Liesl said...

@etlhoy- You could also ask your friend what they're expecting from the critique, what they'd like you to focus on. While grammar/spelling corrections are never unwelcome (well, maybe they are for an English teacher,) I think most writers prefer early readers to focus on the rhythm of their story- plot, character, world building, etc, as well as your emotional response. Point out where you are confused and where you are bored, as well as where you are excited and immersed in the story. Specific suggestions for improvement are welcome, but be as constructive as possible. Point out positives to soften the negatives. I have never felt like I've done anyone a favor by tearing their work to pieces. There are some things a writer can and needs to figure out on their own.

Best of luck! It's no easy task.

Ishta Mercurio said...

We're allowed, even encouraged, to disagree with our copyeditor and stet things that we did on purpose. Good to know; thanks.

It's surprising to me, reading the other comments here, how many authors did not get this information from their editors or agents.

Anonymous said...

CE can also be given a priority stylesheet for decisions that have been made for the manuscript.

Eva said...

One of the things I like about track changes in Word is that instead of changing something with the notorious red or blue pencil, I can highlight it and write a comment. This gives me a way to make a suggestion without sending that "you're wrong" message that can come across if I just change the text.

Andrea J. Phillips said...

@etlhoy, I second Liesl's comments, vehemently. You need to ask your friend if he sent it to you for meticulous copy editing (English teacher? Doubtful.), or for broad constructive feedback.

(If he didn't ask you, but you said, "Ooh, I'd love to see a draft!!", then definitely: broad feedback, gentle touch.)

Like you, I'm one of "those people" who can spot a misplaced apostrophe from a mile away.

But creative flow only happens when I turn my internal editor off.

I make mistakes in my fast-writing that I would cringe to see in someone else's work, because I'm trying to get information out of my head and onto paper (/screen). I can spend an hour on one vexing punctuation issue. Fun, but not productive.

When I need (and ask for) *early draft* feedback, I want an honest verdict of "Burn it," "Nice try, start again from scratch," or "Omigod, you're brilliant." The more notes like the ones Liesl recommended, the better. "Correcting" comma/semi-colon choices? Not what I'm looking for.

Epiphany: Ask him if he's thinking of you as "an early draft reader" or a copy editor.

MissAzuki said...

This is such a helpful response. Working on both sides of the fence, as a writer and editor, I can see the logic of it. Thanks!

Sandy said...

Thanks. Persnickety, one of my favorite words, was thrown at me by a doting fifth-grade teacher somewhere in the Midwest. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog.

Katherine Jenkins said...

I am so happy to find this blog as I am just now going over copy edits on my memoir coming out March 2012. Nice to know I have a choice. Thanks for posting.

tanyagrove said...

I know I'm a little late to respond, but I only just found this blog, which I love!

Advice from a copyeditor: remember that we are people too, with husbands and teenage daughters and crazy brothers and mortgages, etc.

Another bit of advice: pay close attention to the sample edit and actually take the time to read the style sheet, and you won't be surprised by all those blue marks.

For my part, I always try to include a personal note when I begin a project so that I represent a flesh-and-blood person on the other side of the blue pencil (metaphorically speaking, since most of my copyediting is done on the computer).

If it makes you feel better, know that sometimes we copyeditors have to work with diva authors who don't understand style sheets, never looked through a Chicago Manual of Style, and think we're mean and persnickety just because we can be.

But usually authors are reasonable people who just need to be treated with a little respect—like copyeditors. We're all in this book biz together, even if we're sometimes on different sides.

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