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Monday, April 16, 2012

What Your Copy Editor Does for You

your copy editor knows her trains
As I delve deeper into the copyedited pages of The Key & the Flame manuscript, the process feels very familiar. Not only do I dissect manuscripts on a regular basis as a freelance copy editor, but many years ago I worked as a project editor for HarperCollins. In the parlance of that particular department, a project editor was the person who handled manuscripts in the production phase--hiring copy editors and proofreaders, going over the authors' corrections, and moving the book along toward its pub date. (Many publishers call this person a production editor.) So I know the copyediting process from various points of view. But it occurred to me that maybe some of you are wondering what the heck the copy editor does, anyway?

Because (you may reason), after all, my editor has already gone through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, right? She/he has already taken it apart and turned it inside out. She/He sent me a ten-page letter telling me what revisions were needed. I spent weeks whipping this baby into shape. What else is there to do?

Plenty. See, your editor is a big-picture kind of reader. She thinks in terms of plot, characters, conflict, theme. Does your timeline make sense? Is the hero acting consistently? Is the writing overdone or underdone? Different editors have different strengths and focus on various points according to the author and the work itself. But generally, they're looking at the forest.

So someone has to look at the trees--each tree. Okay, each leaf, really.

Enter the copy editor.

The copy editor will, of course, check your grammar. If she's a good copy editor, she'll catch on to your little quirks and leave them alone because it's part of your "style." If she's really good, she'll catch on but then also see where you violate your own rules and call you on it. Outside of those constrictions, she'll help your text conform to the publishing-house style book (for instance, The Chicago Manual of Style, plus the publisher's own quirky decisions as to spelling and punctuation). She's also responsible for:

  • keeping track of the plot's chronology and timeline
  • making sure that when Rodrigo sips red wine on page 14, he hasn't suddenly switched to brandy on page 15
  • checking trademark names (it's Coca-Cola, not Coco Cola)
  • seeing if Starbucks actually serves a drink called a Whippacino (they don't)
  • verifying that Stella isn't using an iPhone in 2005 (the first was released in 2007)
  • finding out if the no. 5 train stops at 51st Street (no, it's an express)
  • knowing when peanut butter was invented
  • consistency, consistency, consistency (in spelling, character names, plotting, etc.)
When I copyedited books, I sometimes wondered how writers could miss basic stuff like the fact that if Jason goes skydiving on Thursday and "two days later, on Monday" he meets Candace at a Greek restaurant, something doesn't add up. Now, as a writer, I know that if you've messed with your timeline over and over in multiple drafts, pieces of it may not have quite fallen into place. That's the kind of thing that a copy editor, who's never read your book before, will notice.

So yes--your book needs yet another pair of eyes. And yes, you will be grateful for it.


  1. Great post! I've worked as an editor (magazine, business) for the last several years, but it was only after I got my book deal that I learned my editor doesn't copyedit. I still have some time before I'll receive my copy edits, but I'm SO looking forward to them to see how my own work holds up. Will be strange (but refreshing) to be on the other side!

  2. Thanks, Brandy! Book editing is such an exhaustive process that it's great to have different people reading the book looking for different things. I'm interested to hear how other authors are doing with their copyedits, so keep me posted!