The Copyedited Manuscript


It arrived on Friday, and without even looking at the return address, I knew what it was.  Manuscripts make for big packages, and this was the right size and shape, not to mention the right timing.  I have to admit that I dread this phase of the process.  At this point I’ve read THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, the second book in my Blood of the Southlands trilogy, four times “cover” to “cover”.  (It’s still a manuscript, so it doesn’t actually have a cover.  But you know what I mean.)

Now I have to read it again.  On the other hand the arrival of the copyedited manuscript has given me an excuse to post about this aspect of the book production process, so it’s not a total loss.  This is actually an incredibly important part of preparing a novel for publication, and it’s one that is little understood outside of publishing circles.  So without further ado….

Copyediting is an intermediate editing step that comes between the substantive revisions that an author normally does in consultation with his/her editor, and the final line editing of the finished, typeset page proofs that proof readers and authors do just before a book goes to press.  As such, copyediting is a unique hybrid of substantive and line editing.  Sometimes a copy editor will point out very technical grammatical stuff that needs correcting.  At other times he or she will deal with issues relating to consistency in a character’s behavior or appearance.  (Note:  the noun “copy editor” is two words; the verb “copyedit” is one.  I’m assuming that taking that verb and making it into an adjective, as in “copyedited manuscript”, takes the verb’s form.  This is the type of stuff you think about when going over copy edits….)

Basically, there are three parts to a copyedited manuscript like the one I received the other day.  Part one is what is called the Style Sheet.  This is a series of pages that outlines the mechanics of what will follow in the copyedited manuscript.  It tells the author and typesetter what references the copy editor has used (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition; Chicago Manual of Style…), it lists usage rules followed (serial comma, how possessives are handled, what words are capitalized, any idiosyncratic punctuation styles used by the author), and then it gives a list of names, places, and any other terms unique to the manuscript.  Clearly this is especially important for fantasies, which often include many unfamiliar words and names.  I keep every style sheet ever generated for any of my books, because they are an unbelievably helpful resource, even for me, the guy who’s already supposed to know all of these names and places.

The second part of the copyedited package is referred to as “Queries.”  These are questions that the copyeditor feels the author needs to address in editing the manuscript, either because the passages in question are syntactically dodgy or substantively problematic.  For example, in HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT, I was queried about a phrase that read strangely because (as it turned out) I’d omitted a word.  I was also queried about a plot point that seemed to be at odds with something I had mentioned earlier in the book about a particular character.  I am expected to address every query, either by correcting the problem, or by indicating that there is no problem.

Finally, there is the manuscript itself, which will have my copy editor’s corrections in it in colored pencil.  I’m expected to read through the manuscript and make certain that I agree with all of the copy editor’s suggested changes.  If I don’t, I’m to make this clear in a different color of pencil.

I have been quite fortunate over the last ten years or so of my career, in that I’ve worked on every book but one with the same wonderful copy editor.  Her name is Terry McGarry, and in addition to being a thorough and sensitive copy editor, she’s also a phenomenal author.  Her first trilogy (ILLUMINATION, THE BINDER’S ROAD, TRIAD) is now out from Tor Books and she’s hard at work on her next project.  What makes Terry such a great copy editor?  Part of it is that she gives great style sheet.  The style sheet for HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT wasn’t limited to names and places from that book; it also included information from the books of Winds of the Forelands, as well as THE SORCERER’S PLAGUE, book one of the Southlands trilogy.  I can see where names first appeared in a series (book and manuscript page), and I can see whether names I’m using now are too similar to names I’ve used previously in the same world.  This is unbelievably valuable information to have at one’s fingertips.

But more than that, Terry copyedits other authors the way she herself would want to be copyedited.   She has a very light touch; she only suggests changes that she deems necessary for purposes of clarity.  She’s a much better writer than I am, and she could probably make stylistic changes that would improve my prose.  But she understands that these changes would make the books something other than mine, and she doesn’t do that.  When she’s unsure of how I’ll feel about a change, she queries it.  In short, she is always respectful of my work.

How do I know that Terry is so good compared with other copy editors?  Because over the years I’ve had a couple of very bad copy edits done.  And they were bad for different reasons.  One of them came back to me with only two queries — this was on a 900 page manuscript.  Even the best author in the world isn’t that good.  And I’m nowhere near the best author in the world.  This copy editor sent me a very nice note about how much s/he enjoyed the book and how absorbing s/he found it.  I think what happened was that this person became so engrossed in the novel, that s/he stopped copyediting and started reading for pleasure.  A fine compliment, yes.  But not all that helpful.  This was early in my career, and the book needed the help a good copy editor could have offered.  The other bad copy edit was from someone who thought s/he knew better than I what the book should have been about and how it should have been written.  S/He copyedited with a heavy hand and utter disregard for the tone of my book.  All through my review of the manuscript I had to keep on writing in “STET” which basically is editspeak for “leave my damn book alone!”

So there you go.  The ABCs of copyediting from an author’s perspective.  I’d love to hear other authors’ experiences with copy edits, and will be happy to reply to questions about the process.  But for now I have to go.  I have a manuscript to read


9 comments to The Copyedited Manuscript

  • David said: “All through my review of the manuscript I had to keep on writing in “STET” which basically is editspeak for “leave my damn book alone!”

    *laughing* That’s great! I needed that giggle today!

  • Frank

    With all the work, from all the different people, that goes in to this process, it is really quite amazing that I can walk into a bookstore and pick up a hardback book for less than 30 bucks! Not only has the author slaved away over it, but a fleet of editors as well, and presumably they are all being paid for it!

    Oh, and David…

    “problematic” only has one “m”.

    Sorry, but I couldn’t resist, given the subject….

  • Yikes! You’re right! I have always been a lousy speller — one of the reasons it’s so important that I be edited well. Thanks for the comment.

    And thanks to you, too, Misty. Glad to have made you laugh.

  • David,
    I know of a writer who got back a mspt in which a new copyeditor had changed every single *said* to something else…

    he declaimed
    he rejoined
    she demanded
    she whined

    It was *awful* with a blue-million STETs. The editor who was involved was sooo embarrassed. That copyeditor never worked for that house again.

  • Wow, Faith. I’ve heard many a copyediting horror story, but that’s up there with the worst of them.

  • My copy edits come electronically in the form of lengthy comments and additions/deletions in the Track Changes section of MS Word. My editor has her wicked way with my manuscripts, adding comments, suggestions and “abuse” when needed. All in good fun, of course. It ends up being an electronic dialog back and forth until we find just the right tone and prose for each section. IMHO a print version of the edits wouldn’t be as much fun.

  • I’ve surprised myself, Jana. I’ve gotten to the point where I prefer editing on paper rather than on a screen. Something about the conversion of the words to physical form allows me to see problems with greater clarity. I don’t know if it’s more or less fun, but for me it works better.

  • Crystal

    I found this discussion while searching the web about how to become a copyeditor. The concept facinates me, and I am the de facto “editor” at my completely unrelated-to-publishing job. I love to read novels, but it always distracts me when I find an error, and I invariably think, “Gee, if only I could be the one helping with these errors before they reach the shelf.” (Well, I guess I don’t actually say “gee” – but I could have….) Anyway – this was a very helpful “take” on the whole world of copyediting – one I am sure I would have never seen without this crazy internet thing. Thanks!!

  • Thanks for posting this; useful info for someone who’s never read a proofread manuscript by a copyeditor.