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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

09 November 2007

Copyeditor: friend or foe?

Out in the real world, when people learn I’m a writer and copyeditor, they have no idea what the “copyeditor” half involves.

Neither do many writers, judging from the complaints I’ve heard some make about copyeditors.

No horns sprout from my head; the number “666” is nowhere tattooed on my flesh. My job is not to ruin your golden prose, but to buff it to its highest shine so that it reflects well on you.

In the "Razored Zen" blog today, Charles Gramlich argues that a writer’s primary purpose is to get his or her point across. Your copyeditor helps you do that, and more. Here’s how.

•The copyeditor puts your copy into the magazine’s house style so that usage is consistent throughout the issue. Some publications use a comma after the penultimate item in a series (lions, tigers, and bears) and some don’t (lions, tigers and bears). Some italicize species names and some don’t. Some italicize captions and some set them uppercase. Some say 98°F and some, 98 °F. Some use “Koran” and some, “Qu’ran.” English contains hundreds of acceptable style and spelling variants, and the copyeditor has to know which ones a publication uses.

•The copyeditor also makes your copy logical and internally consistent. A person’s last name should be spelled the same way each time, for example. Reference 1 should be cited before reference 2. If a word has multiple acceptable spellings or abbreviations, the copyeditor changes the text so that the same one is used each time. Variations could confuse the reader, who puzzles over the distinction the writer is making between “analog” and “analogue” or between “fluorodeoxy glucose” and “fluorodeoxyglucose.”

•The copyeditor looks for grammar, syntax, spelling, word, and math errors. Even professional writers sometimes make basic mistakes, and doctors often misspell drug and chemical names.

•The copyeditor is alert for factual errors, both definite ones that can be corrected immediately (one can be sure that the Battle of Hastings did not take place in 1966) and possible ones (for which the copyeditor may do some research, send you a query, or both).

•The copyeditor fixes other problems that might confuse readers or send them off to do a Google search. In particular, most magazines want an article on first usage to give people’s full names, spell out abbreviations and acronyms, define technical terms not familiar to the readership, tell what state or country a nonmajor city is in, and give both generic and brand names of drugs.

•At some publications, the copyeditor may take out unnecessary words that weigh down the text, unknot tangled sentences, and smooth awkward passages that could confuse a reader.

Next time you’re tempted to cuss out the copyeditor who slashed red across your pristine black-and-white pages, take another look. You’ll probably find your text is cleaner, clearer, more accurate, more consistent, and easier to read. In other words, the reader can grasp your message better. Your copyeditor may be your best friend between submission and publication.


November is author interview month at “For Love Of Words.” Look for at least two interviews with authors with newly released books in the coming weeks.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've too often ended up being a copy editor for other folks rather than having one myself. I sure could enjoy having one, though. I don't think it's my natural talent, but it's a skill I greatly appreciate.

virtual nexus said...

Beautiful blog, and thankyou for the insights into copy editing.

You might enjoy a visit to the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery on Orkney.

I'm a rank beginner who strayed onto Charle's page from Leigh Russell who has got a lively blog.

If you love books,
look up Stuck-in-a-book's link - he's working in the Bodleian in Oxford and his blog is remarkable.

Regards, Julie

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent post, Shauna. I like to think I never need a copy editor, yet must admit I occasionally commit typos if not worse. I appreciate good copy-editing, which is slowly dying out. Nowadays I'm finding more and more books, magazines, and newspapers with errors that should have been caught by an alert (and properly-trained) copy editor. Not to mention the misspellings on road signs, business signs, TV news programs, etc. Shudder. Blessings on copy editors--long may you live. Certainly, at least until the new generation of copy editors learns to do it as well as you!

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, copyediting is probably more a skill than a talent. I first started learning when I worked at Science magazine. I would get back my copyedited copy and immediately go to the copyeditor and say, "What's wrong with this? And what's wrong with this other thing?" (Luckily, Science had very patient copyeditors.) That was a quick way of learning the basics. But one can learn a lot just by reading popular grammar books.

JULIE, thanks for stopping by and for recommending the Hoxa Tapestry site. Very nice. Did you guess I was interested in the fabric arts because my profile said I quilted? I haven't gotten to Stuck-in-a-book yet, but the name is intriguing and I will check it out later.

Shauna Roberts said...

SPHINX INK, it's my belief that every writer, no matter how good, needs a copywriter. Even though I'm a copyeditor as well as a writer and even though I do multiple drafts of every article I write, mistakes and unclear sentences slip through occasionally.

Like you, I notice increasing errors in books and magazines, to the point where it pulls me out of the story and annoys me.

virtual nexus said...

Shauna -

Yes; its a similar combination of creativity plus patience... I designed one once, but prefer to admire other specialists than commit to that labour of love!

- has just finished Eng at Oxford and working in the library for 1 yr - depending on your interest, has fascinating literary links; worth a browse in passing.

Bernita said...

A good copyeditor is gold.

virtual nexus said...

Thank you for visiting. Also thanks for your encouragement and the well considered - and well timed - advice. This week has been a fascinating learning curve.

I am giving careful thought to what type of blog would suit, as I have varied interests (potentially pulled together by writing) and varied interest groups looking in, but no firm 'anchor'(yet?)in any one area.

It's tricky - and I do see your point in terms of blog identity - and not ending up as a lucky dip for passers by!

Had an interesting chat with son2 about how blogging is self-regulating (swarm theory)- and some individuals/blogs become seminal by virtue of their traffic.

So sorry to note you ended up on the receiving end of such sweeping natural disasters.

Best wishes,


cs harris said...

I am one writer who is very thankful to my copyeditors. They have saved me from some very embarrassing goofs. True, they sometimes change things and make them wrong, but that's why I get to see the manuscript again after they've gone over it. No one person can know everything. When I get a manuscript with very few changes, I worry I've had a lazy copyeditor.

Shauna Roberts said...

BERNITA and CANDICE, thanks for stopping by. I'm always grateful to get a good copyeditor who takes a close look at my work and keeps me from looking like a fool in print.

JULIE, I'm looking forward to watching your blog develop its identity.

I imagine working in the Bodleian must be heaven . . . unless allergies to dust and mold develop and make it hell.

virtual nexus said...

Ah priceless; I never thought of that.

And thankyou again for helping me find my feet. I had brief spells in 'gaps' working in the educ/gen book trade and minor press up in the Smoke - where I read endless flyleaves and did some fairly creative proof reading.

virtual nexus said...

Shauna, thanks for dropping in.

I feel I need to read more up to date material, go on a writing course and/or spend some time writing experimental 'chunks' to sort out genre confusion and where I might fit. Otherwise I'm wasting time..

Farrah Rochon said...

Just when I was ready to bad mouth my copy editor. You always make me think, Shauna.

Anonymous said...

One more thing a copy editor can do on occasion is save your ass. My copy editor at William Morrow, Maureen Sugden (whom I now request) prevented me from making several horrific mistakes in the first of my Bangkok novels -- including putting a 45-year-old woman in the early stages of a disease that nearly always strikes in childhood.
And in the new book ("The Fourth Watcher"), which she just edited, she did something wonderful for me. In the novel, the central character proposes to his fiancee on her birthday, and gives her a ring in which he has set their birthstones and the birthstone of the Bangkok street child they're adopting. The fiancee's birthstone, I wrote, is a diamond. Maureen's note read, "No month is specified for present time in the narrative, but it's obviously monsoon season, which runs from late June through October. Since the diamonds is the birthstone for April, either this isn't really Rose's birthday, or Rafferty consulted a very unreliable source."

Is that above and beyond, or what? I actually wrote a blog ("Detail Patrol" about the experience of being edited by Maureen on the last book, "A Nail Through the Heart."

Great site, by the way. I've bookmarked it, and your tips will spare Maureen some work next time.

Shauna Roberts said...

Timothy, thanks so much for stopping by and for bookmarking my site. I'm honored that someone who knows as much about writing as you do finds my site useful.

If Maureen's like me, she really enjoyed saving you from embarrassment and making your book as good as possible.