First of all, this is the 1000th post in the history of Magical Words, and I think that’s worth a little “Woot, woot!” Thanks to all of you for following us and making this such a special site.
One of the points we at MW have returned to again and again in our discussions of the advantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing is the importance of working with a developmental editor. There is a second point I’d like to focus on today. First though, I would encourage you to go back and read this post, which I wrote several months ago.
In that post, I list the many services traditional publishers provide that self-pubbed authors, whether putting out hard copies or electronic copies, either pay for themselves or skip. Second on that list is “A professional copyeditor,” and since I am now working on the copyedits for Thieftaker I thought I would expand on this a bit. Many people don’t understand what a copyeditor does; the more you learn about them, the more you’ll come to see just how valuable a service they provide.
Let me say up front that my copyeditor on this project, Terry McGarry, is one of the very best in the business. I have worked with several copyeditors, and not all of them are as thorough or as skilled as she. In part, this may be because Terry is also an accomplished author who knows how it feels to be copyedited. (Terry’s Illumination trilogy — Illumination, The Binder’s Road, Triad — is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read: great characters, magnificent prose, terrific story.) I should also mention here that Terry is a good friend, but I assure you that she puts just as much effort into the manuscripts of strangers as she does into mine. To be honest, we’ve been a bit out of touch lately, so I’m not sure she knows that I’m “D.B. Jackson.” But her work on this book was every bit as thorough as her work on my other books.
So, what does a copyeditor do? Well, when I receive my copyedited manuscript from the publisher (in paper form — some publishers are moving to electronic copyediting, with track changes etc.; Tor still works with paper manuscripts for this stage of the process), the first thing I see is what’s called “Copyeditor’s Style Sheet.” The style sheet is one of the most valuable things I get from ANY phase of the publication process (and Terry gives great Style Sheet . . .). It includes first a list of the sources she uses for her editing of the manuscript — which dictionaries she referred to (Webster’s New Collegiate, 11th ed.; Webster’s Third Unabridged), which encyclopedias she consulted (Britannica), which style manual she used (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.), and what other sources she consulted (in this case several books about Boston).
It then specifies style and usage conventions used in the manuscript, usually (but not always) deferring to the author’s stylistic choices: serial comma, how possessives are handled in names ending in “s”, hyphenation conventions, capitalization, when italics are used, how numbers and dates are written (numerically or spelled out), and other stylistic choices. Then we get into the really valuable stuff. The style sheet includes a list of all proper names occurring in the manuscript and the page on which they first appear. Character names will often include a brief physical description and/or an indication of who the character is. Place names include similar information (a description of the place and/or its significance). These listings will also include alternative names used for any places or things. So, for instance, the entry on the list for the tavern where Ethan Kaille, my hero in Thieftaker, hangs out reads like this: “Dowsing Rod, the; the Dowser (a tavern on Sudbury Street) 17, 23, 123.” Translated: The Dowsing Rod is first mentioned on page 17, the nickname for the tavern (the Dowser) is first used on page 23, and its Sudbury Street location is first specified on page 123.
The style sheet then lists words or phrases that are either unique to the manuscript or might be considered idiosyncratic. For instance, I refer to the Boston jail as the “gaol” because that is the usage of the day. The style sheet lists that. It also lists things like the names of spells that Ethan casts, as well as information about them (e.g. “elemental spell 62 — fueled by fire, water, earth or air, 216”). Terry’s style sheet for Thieftaker also included every Latin spell Ethan uses in the course of the book, with the Latin spelled out and my translations listed as well.
Finally, the style sheet includes a list of queries, questions the copyeditor has for the author. Usually these deal with inconsistencies or potential inaccuracies. For example, in the course of the book, I use two different Latin phrasings for one of the spells; Terry wants to know which one is right, and she wants me to fix the ones that are wrong. In another spot, I list the name of a street, but it’s a street that is named differently in various maps of pre-Revolutionary Boston and in books about the city. Terry wants me to be aware of the potential discrepancies and to use the one that best fits the book. The queries also sometimes deal with more mundane issues — a question of style or phrasing that doesn’t quite sound right or could potentially be confusing.
And that’s it for the style sheet. We haven’t even started on the manuscript yet! Actually, a copyeditor’s work on the manuscript is usually the least of her (or his) work. A good copyeditor will catch typos, grammatical and syntactical problems, and other stuff like that. But — and this is key — a good copyeditor edits with a very light hand and queries any changes that might be more substantive. Lots of authors (Faith included, if I’m not mistaken) have horror stories about copyeditors changing too much; for instance, taking dialect and turning it to King’s English, or other stuff like that. That’s bad copyediting.
What is the point of copyediting? Why is it so important, and why do copyeditors take so much time with style sheets and the like? In part, a copyeditor is there to make sure that a novel is consistent from cover to cover. S/he ensures that the author’s intent and execution are in sync. “Did you intend for his eyes to be blue or brown, because they’re blue on page 67 but brown on page 314?” But beyond that, a crucial aspect of a copyeditor’s job is to serve, in essence, as a liaison between the author and the typesetter. Those style sheets will serve me well as I continue to write in the series — I now have a handy reference for names and spells. But more important, the style sheets allow the typesetter to make certain that unusual words and phrases are correct, that italics are used in the right places, that calling the tavern “the Dowsing Rod” in one place and “the Dowser” in another is okay.
Because just as an author wants to get this stuff right, and so does the typesetter, our readers REALLY want this stuff to be correct and consistent. Reading a book with errors and inconsistencies can be incredibly frustrating. Copyeditors save us from that. And this is one more way in which traditional publishing often produces a higher quality book than does self-publishing. I don’t know what Terry charges for her services, but I do know that it’s a considerable amount (as it should be). When Tor publishes my book, I don’t have to worry about the price of a copyeditor. It’s part of the process, part of the reason why I don’t get all the proceeds from a book sale. And it’s worth every penny.David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net