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February 28, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

A Conversation With My Copyeditor
posted by the man of twists and turns (37 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Love this--my job involves a lot of proofreading (which is different from copyediting!), and I deal with a lot of editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders (again, all different) on a daily basis. People think I'm a grammarhead, and I do love me my CMOS, but so much of my job has to do with exactly the kind of delicate negotiation between the author, the freelancer, the and publisher that this interview describes. I think the number one thing people don't understand about editing is when NOT to edit. Many people know grammar (and many more people think they know it, which is a separate rant), but it's an understanding of the various stages of the publishing process and why you can't just change the entire capitalization style at proofs, plus a certain respect for the author's voice, that makes a successful freelance proofreader or copyeditor.

So, for example, things like a character being described as not having visitation with his kids later taking them somewhere on “his” weekend, or someone beginning a scene sitting on a couch, then rising from a chair, or a character drinking a shot of whiskey but getting a refill on her red wine.

I had a late-stage proofreader recently query a scene where the main character ran upstairs to tell her mom something, in a children's novel where the dad was in a wheelchair and all previous descriptions of their house pointed to it being on one level. Those catches are so satisfying.
posted by sunset in snow country at 2:28 PM on February 28 [7 favorites]


One of my very first jobs when I was in college in the 80s was at a publishing company, working with editors of textbooks. It's astonishing how 30 years later I still remember pretty much all of the copyediting marks on the diagram at the top of this article.
posted by matildaben at 2:46 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I must admit to being surprised. I would have thought that most documents would be edited electronically these days. Is there a move in that direction, or are there good reasons to stick with paper that I don't know of?
posted by YAMWAK at 2:50 PM on February 28


I think that image is just to illustrate the piece--most copyeditors do work electronically now. As a proofreader, though, I still use those marks because once the pages are laid out there's no other way to track changes.
posted by sunset in snow country at 2:58 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


We should all become familiar with these, less used editing marks:

Proofers' Marks For Editing Erotica
posted by GhostRider at 3:00 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]


I must admit to being surprised. I would have thought that most documents would be edited electronically these days. Is there a move in that direction, or are there good reasons to stick with paper that I don't know of?

I'm a book editor. I always do a first read on paper -- one pass without a pencil, then one pass with -- but from there I copy edit the rest electronically. When it comes to proofreading, though, the only way I can do it accurately (at least until very, very final stages) is on hard copy. It's surprisingly hard to see a lot of mistakes on screen vs. on paper, and as mentioned above, you have to have a fixed, static version of each round of changes/corrections to refer to.
posted by scody at 3:21 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]


YAMWAK: "I must admit to being surprised. I would have thought that most documents would be edited electronically these days. Is there a move in that direction, or are there good reasons to stick with paper that I don't know of?"

Literally was going to use the same phrase as scody -- it's "surprisingly hard" to catch errors on screen. I don't really know why, it just reads differently.

I think it's a little easier to catch errors on my kindle paperwhite than on an LCD screen, so part of it is maybe the glow (you definitely get headaches faster proofreading on screen)? But I don't really know. It's just a LOT easier on paper.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:31 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


That was great, thanks.

Was anyone else struck by Donna Tartt's comment as being somewhat backwards? She says she disagrees with standardized, prescriptive writing... but has employed a "pre-20th century model" for her own. What! I would say 19th century writers are the reason prescriptive models have any weight at all! It's 20th century writers who strike me as being more likely to employ personal language models rather than adhering to the standard.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:39 PM on February 28


I loved my copyeditor, but I'm kind of afraid that he hated me. I sent him a LOT of emails about hyphens. I had opinions about hyphens, a lot of opinions, opinions I explained at length. Also commas.
posted by escabeche at 3:50 PM on February 28


I have been a proof reader and lots of different types of editor. The single most satisfying thing for me was editing columns and helping the author maintain his or her voice while making the column the strongest work it could possibly be.

The absolute most wonderful and professional columnist I worked with wrote a bad column once a year. But only once a year. And I could tell him he had to write something completely different, and he would, because he knew I was always honest with him. That said, I also always put in little love notes to him about all the wonderful phrases and wording he used.

When I was a fact checker I once discovered that a short story writer had put a mountain in the wrong place. That was fairly satisfying as well. There is nothing like being a fact checker to make you deeply question everything you ever read or hear.

Bad editors of any sort are a menace. I once had an editor who rewrote my columns by adding extra, multisyllabic verbiage. Because lengthy turgid prose is the soul of wit.

This particular copy editor sounds like a prize. Also, as a switch-hitter I think it's fine for writers to have opinions. I throw a fit if someone messes with my em dashes. We all have stylistic quirks. The main thing is consistency.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:04 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


> I think the number one thing people don't understand about editing is when NOT to edit.

Yup. I winced and chuckled simultaneously when I got to this part:
Last year a publisher asked me to do a second copyedit on a memoir that had been thoroughly (way too thoroughly) copyedited already. The first copyeditor had changed so much that the author became paralyzed about a third of the way through his review of her changes.
I had exactly the same experience earlier this year; I was very happy when the newly traumatized author was pleased with my edit. I've never done such a light edit in my life (at every turn, I'd be asking myself "Do I really have to make this change, or can the author's version be justified?"), and it was an educational experience—I'd also never seen another editor's work in such detail, and I was shocked (and temporarily a little smug). But:

The main challenge, other than the usual one of balancing deadlines with quality, is making a sustainable living as a freelance copyeditor.

Yes, yes indeed.

> I sent him a LOT of emails about hyphens. I had opinions about hyphens, a lot of opinions, opinions I explained at length. Also commas.

I imagine your copyeditor did hate you. I certainly would have. Nothing personal, but hyphens are our job, not yours.
posted by languagehat at 4:33 PM on February 28 [5 favorites]


it's "surprisingly hard" to catch errors on screen. I don't really know why, it just reads differently.

I'm a software developer and my office is unique in that we print out most of our code for code reviews. Part of this is because it's easier to discuss complex things when you can see each others faces and partly because it is just easier to catch tiny things on paper.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:38 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Copyeditors are always guessing at the author’s intentionality

'Intentionality' is not a synonym for 'intentions', even if you think using that way makes you sound smart. Red pencil.
posted by thelonius at 4:41 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


I copy edit fiction and agree that an author's intentions are paramount. Query, query, query and you can't go wrong. My favorite projects are the ones I do with authors I've worked with multiple times -- I learn their voices, they learn my style and the end result is a well-edited project.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:49 PM on February 28


Nothing personal, but hyphens are our job, not yours.

That's the very definition of "personal".

(see what i did here)
posted by LogicalDash at 7:08 PM on February 28


One of my first experiences with an editor was doing freelance work for the Wallechinsky/Wallace People's Almanac organization. I started by responding to a blind ad for content for a sequel to The Book of Lists (yes, suckers, I wrote listicles LONG before they were cool) and ended up assigned to write for "The People's Almanac Presents Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People". Hey, it was paid work, and something that could be worded better on a resume. All the 'Famous People' in the book were deceased, most of them historically so, and I was assigned German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, about whom I had little knowledge or interest, especially about his sex life. But the editors, in deciding who to include in the book, had a team of researchers, who not only vetted the subjects but collected most of the material required by the writers, so I got a big manila envelope with over 200 pages of xeroxed biographical material for me to pick out the sexy stuff and put into 1500 words. An interesting challenge. The focus on the draft I sent to the editors was that Schopenhauer's somewhat dramatic losses in love helped fuel the fatalism and negativity in his philosophy and was pretty darned proud of myself. Then, a week later, I got a one page response saying "good writing, but you failed to mention that he died from complications of syphyllis." Apparently the mostly-old sources I had been provided were not terribly direct, and I had not read nearly enough between the lines. It felt like failing both English Literature AND Sex Education in high school. But they let me rewrite it (with a short deadline), and I gave them something they liked enough to give me another assignment: Scottish Poet Robert Burns. Now his sex life was more openly discussed, so I finished that 2000 words article with nothing "gang aft agley"...
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:13 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


Bad editors of any sort are a menace. I once had an editor who rewrote my columns by adding extra, multisyllabic verbiage. Because lengthy turgid prose is the soul of wit.

When I was writing music and book reviews in Chicago back in the '90s, I once had an editor "correct" my use of Sturm und Drang to "storm and drag."
posted by scody at 7:18 PM on February 28 [4 favorites]


Of course, SBB's comma tip #4 is weirdly explained. The comma goes after the "on" there because the whole thing is a complex sentence with the dependent clause coming in front of the independent clause ("after" is the subordinating conjunction), and not because a pause is needed to prevent "reading on."
posted by notyou at 7:19 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


scody, I had an editor "correct" my use of Titian-haired to Titan-haired. I remain both furious and convinced that anyone who read that column unfairly considers me a moron.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:37 PM on February 28 [2 favorites]


I must admit to being surprised. I would have thought that most documents would be edited electronically these days. Is there a move in that direction, or are there good reasons to stick with paper that I don't know of?

I copy-edit for a living. I do both. For a first-round copy-edit, I use Track Changes in Word. But for line-editing typescripts, proofreading layouts, and looking over final PDFs and bluelines, printouts really help. It's just a different way of reading—which means you catch different things than you would otherwise. Also, the (affordable) technology for remote proofreading of PDFs is just obnoxious to use; I've proofread more than 20 books using the commenting and highlighting functions in Acrobat and Preview, but...ugh.

Some days it feels like just about all the common digital tools of the trade are inadequate, 'cause Word for Mac tends to slow down and eventually crash once you go beyond a half-dozen heavily change-tracked pages; InCopy hangs on complex, heavily edited layouts; Suitcase Fusion manages fonts, but just barely; Acrobat and Preview both require a lot of shuffling of comment bubbles when there are a lot of suggested edits; Merriam-Webster's online version has JavaScript and videos that make Firefox hang and crash; AP Stylebook Online now includes Webster's New World College Dictionary entries, but it's slow to load, and the Shakespeare entry no longer includes his first name...

Sorry, it's been a long week, guys!

What I do like is the mindfulness that editing digitally or on paper requires—seeing what's there, not what your brain wants to be there. Though it's made me much more of a literalist in real life, alas, than I once was!
posted by limeonaire at 7:59 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Proper copyediting and proofreading should be done on paper.

Too often there isn't time or budget for proper.
posted by notyou at 8:11 PM on February 28


Nothing personal, but hyphens are our job, not yours.

How can it be? I mean, if you say something is a not-too-good idea that's different from saying it's a not too good idea. Why should the author not get to use the one they mean?

From the article:

Most copyeditors don’t want to alter anything in a manuscript that the author has done on purpose. The house style is set by the publisher, and copyeditors generally receive a manuscript without any guidelines other than to follow the house style for that publisher. And “house style” doesn’t refer to writing style but to mechanics such as capitalization, hyphenation, spelling (most often the house dictionary is Webster’s 11th), and so on.

Surely capitalization and hyphenation are part of writing style and are carried out intentionally. You make choices in order to express something. Spelling I'm not so sure (though I guess in fiction there really might be situations of intentional spelling.)
posted by escabeche at 8:15 PM on February 28 [1 favorite]


escabeche, save your strength. These folks have fistfights over the em dash....
posted by thelonius at 8:31 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]


Sure, people make choices in writing in order to express things a certain way. But if Those Choices include Capitalizing Random Things or All Nouns, for instance, I start to wonder Whether It Was Deliberate, and I'm probably Not Going to Be on Your Side.

Beyond that, you know who's creative in terms of hyphen use? Spammers.

"MUST READ: Huge-Vehicle Specials in Your Area"
"MUST-SEE - Huge Vehicle-Specials-in Your Area"
"MUST-SEE - Huge-Vehicle Specials-in-Your Area"
"MUST SEE: Huge-Vehicle-Specials in Your-Area"

Such hyphenation. So spam. Wow.
posted by limeonaire at 8:42 PM on February 28 [3 favorites]


thelonius: "These folks have fistfights over the em dash."

Yeah, one time I wrote up (in an hour) and sent an infuriated three-page memo to the news editor & managing editor of my paper about the news editor's totally erroneous use of numerals in a particular headline and then argued about it with the news editor for two solid hours before the managing editor finally overruled me and sent it to press with the news editor's headline version, which remained incorrect. This was more than 10 years ago.

I'm still mad.

And I'm still right.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:03 PM on February 28 [8 favorites]


I've written and edited (for prominent publications, sites and companies), feel like there are about four decent editors in the world. Most are arrogant wannabes or burn-outs who like to wank their egos 'cause they know the writers are the ones who are carrying weight.
posted by ambient2 at 11:40 PM on February 28


Escabeche: I (yes, an editor) really don't think there *is* a difference between a not-too-good-idea and a not too good idea other than that the first one is easier to read. If you intend some difference, and the editor changes it, you might check to see if there other other ways to get your point across.

And no, unless you are ee cummings, hyphens and capitalization follow general language rules and a publication's house style. They are not a writer's to play with freely.
posted by mkuhnell at 7:30 AM on March 1


> I mean, if you say something is a not-too-good idea that's different from saying it's a not too good idea.

What is that difference, exactly?
posted by languagehat at 8:22 AM on March 1


Maybe the writer meant to illustrate the difference between an idea that's flat-out not a good one and an idea that's good, but not too good, y'know what I'm sayin'? Heh.
posted by limeonaire at 9:57 AM on March 1


Yeah, one time I wrote up (in an hour) and sent an infuriated three-page memo to the news editor & managing editor of my paper about the news editor's totally erroneous use of numerals in a particular headline

For a second, I misread that as "Yeah, one time I woke up and sent an infuriated three-page memo to the news editor and managing editor about the news editor's totally erroneous use of numerals in a particular headline," and I thought, "Did you see that headline in a dream?"

There are no Google results for "psychic copy editors." But maybe they know something we don't.
posted by limeonaire at 10:01 AM on March 1


What I don't understand is, why are books still published with spelling errors? I just finished reading an old copy of _The Honorable Schoolboy_ and was surprised to see so many mistakes, but that was printed before computerisation. But I still find errors in contemporary books! And not just spelling errors, but formatting errors. Surely this sort of thing should be eliminated on a first pass.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:15 PM on March 1


Surely this sort of thing should be eliminated on a first pass.

On a first pass, no. Even on a third or fourth pass, not really. Even the most scrupulously edited books have a typo or a spelling error or a formatting glitch somewhere. The books where they leap out, though -- and I was just reading one this week, and it made me gnash my teeth -- are just particularly sloppily edited. Sometimes this is because a manuscript came in very late with a million mistakes and it's impossible to catch them all; sometimes because the publishing house has cut down on its staff and perfectly good editors are doing twice as much work as they used to; sometimes because an author makes changes very, very late in the process that create new mistakes that aren't caught in time. Good editing is actually hard work, but not every book gets either a good editor or enough time to do a good job.
posted by scody at 6:24 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]


Oh, and keep in mind when it comes to typos and misspellings: computerized spell-checking programs can only catch words that don't actually exist in its dictionary; they doesn't distinguish between different words using the same letters. So a computer can catch owt instead of two, but it won't catch tow. A good copy editor and proofreader will catch that mistake the vast majority of the time, but in a book with tens or hundreds of thousands of words, it's not possible for them to catch it 100% of the time.
posted by scody at 6:30 PM on March 1


¶¶˄↗][#

"Two long-inseamed backpackers saw a mountain in the distance. They were hiking up it and but then there was an avalanche that covered them with snow."
posted by cog_nate at 7:19 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]


I've always wondered about copyediting. Nice post, thanks.
posted by salvia at 10:04 PM on March 1


> sometimes because the publishing house has cut down on its staff and perfectly good editors are doing twice as much work as they used to

This is (I would say) virtually always the explanation, and editors are no longer expected to catch the kinds of mistakes they used to. I ended a very favorable review of a Columbia University Press monograph by complaining about "the terrible proofreading and editing of this important scholarly book" and giving a bunch of examples; in the comment thread, an actual CUP managing editor dropped by to say:
We publish dozens upon dozens of theory-heavy books with many foreign words and phrases. The editor of this book knows Spanish, Portuguese, and some French. Some of our books contain many foreign languages (including Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit). Would you blame the editor if some of these words were wrongly spelled? No editor knows all the languages that often appear in scholarly books. Ultimately, what appears in the book is the responsibility of the author, not the editor. Because we are a nonprofit organization, we always depend on the author to review not only the edited manuscript but the proofs. Books always contain a few errors. No book I’ve read produced by any publisher is perfect.
Frankly, I was flabbergasted; I knew that was now the attitude of publishers, but I couldn't believe they'd spell it out publicly: "Ultimately, what appears in the book is the responsibility of the author, not the editor." As I said in my response, that's a shocking abdication of responsibility.
posted by languagehat at 12:03 PM on March 2 [2 favorites]


Cop Yeditor?
posted by NedKoppel at 1:25 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]


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