Copy Edits: Curse or Blessing?

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Once upon a time, I had such a hard time accepting editorial comments on my work that I resorted to electronic critique sessions.  Reading critiques online gave me a chance to wail, gnash my teeth, mutter snarky comments under my breath, and otherwise act in thoroughly unprofessional ways.  Then, I could pull myself together, pretend I was a big girl, and respond positively to my critique-mate.

I’ve matured a lot since then, and I can now discuss my evolving stories in person.  I still feel the prickles of dismay and disdain, but I shove them down almost immediately, and I move on.

There’s only one exception:  Copy edits.

(For those who aren’t certain what I mean:  Copy edits occur relatively late in the march to publication.  First, I submit my final manuscript to my editor.  She reads it and suggests edits.  I make changes based on those suggestions.  *Then* the manuscript is copy-edited — a professional (not my “editor”, but a different person, the “copy-editor”) reviews the manuscript for grammar errors, factual inconsistencies, narrative flaws (e.g., using the word “word” three times in a sentence, right after the word “word”), conformity to house style (e.g., “gray” as opposed to “grey”, using the serial comma, and other important things), and notes for the typesetter (e.g., specific indications of every instance of italics, em-dashes, chapter headings, etc.))

I completely understand the value of copy edits.  A good copy editor smooths over the thousand jagged edges that pull a reader out of a story.  (In fact, a large number of self-published novels by otherwise talented authors lose me as a reader because they have not been copy edited.)

Nevertheless, I find it nearly impossible to accept copy edits with grace.  I read through the markings (red pencil in the margins of a print manuscript for many projects, although I’ve also received copy edits electronically, using Word’s Track Changes feature…) and a little voice in the back of my head says, “Yeah, right.  Like anyone is going to confuse my made-up herb with a trademarked brand of tea.”  Or I say, “I don’t *think* it’s been seventeen days since the last full moon, you moron — I note these things in Scrivener for just such an emergency!”  Or I say, “No, Fool, I capitalized that character’s title for a very specific reason, which will be revealed on page 213!”

I mutter a lot of other things, too, but I blush to even think about putting them down in print.

The reality is, most copy-editors are almost always right.  Sure, legally, the tea manufacturer would never succeed in a trademark infringement suit (trust me, I litigated trademark cases for seven years…)  But if a reader is pulled out of the story, thinking about the tea in her cupboard when she should be thinking about my characters’ healing tisane, maybe I should make a change.  And it’s just possible that I miscounted the days; there were a lot of changes I made on that last pass through the story.  Or maybe, just maybe, I didn’t provide clear enough markers in the text about the passage of time.  And those capitalized titles?  Well, if they pull a reader out of the text, then maybe I should find a different way to accomplish my big reveal.

Copy-editors aren’t infallible.  I know a number of authors — especially those who write speculative fiction (with its worldbuilding, breaking from the convention of Webster’s Third International Dictionary, and the Chicago Manual of Style) — who have had horrific things done to their manuscripts.  Those authors become overly familiar with the instruction “stet” — leave it as I wrote it, typesetter.  They also tend to submit style sheets with their next manuscripts — careful lists of names, places, and other quirks of their writing.

No, copy-editors aren’t perfect.  But I’m not either.  And I invest the lion’s share of my energy in the crafting and telling of a story, so I’m always grateful for the grammar-and-continuity experts to follow along behind me, cleaning things up.

I’ll just grumble a bit first.  And help myself to a giant pot of non-trademarked tea, to sweeten the blow(s).

How about you?  How do you handle receiving edits?  If you’ve ever been copy-edited, did you find those notes easier or harder to accept that more substantive edits?

Mindy, who has just finished reviewing the copy edits for DARKBEAST — moving her much closer to the August 28, 2012 release date!

(I’ll have inconsistent access to a computer today, so please forgive late responses to your comments!)

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8 comments to Copy Edits: Curse or Blessing?

  • Timely post for me, Mindy, thanks! I’ll be getting copy edits for Darwen II in teh next few days I think and am quietly dreading the process which always seems to take longer than I think. For me the dread is usually less about confornting the errors made by either me or the copy editor than it is being presented with a draft of my manuscript which is suddenly and unexpectedly FINAL. After all the messing about and shifting and moving things around there’s suddenly this file (usually electronic for me) which I know is bound for an actual printer very shortly adn this is my last chance to make it as sgood as it can be. I find it quite harrowing. Publishing a book is a process with so many stages that I get comfortable with the idea that it’s all process and no product. Then suddenly this arrives and it’s money-where-your-mouth-is time. Terrifying.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    So far, my experience with the editorial process has only been with scientific publications, so the first reviewer critique is definitely always the worst. In the copy-edits/line-edits stage, either the mathematical equation has been set correctly or not, either your citations conform to journal style or not. There’s usually very little to get worked up about. But, while revisions in response to referee comments can be the most creative point in the production of the manuscript and often results in very good things, it’s definitely not easy, particularly because of the sometimes very condescending tone of the referee. The referee *might* want to make the paper the best it can be, but *often* is thinking about the process as the weeding out of bad science, and so one is often put on the defensive from the word “Go”. So, I cuss them out soundly to myself, make lots of snarky comments in the margins, and work on setting up my revisions and replies to be as professional as possible.

  • My take on things is perhaps a bit different. Ever since David’s post a few weeks ago about the value of a copy editor, where he explained the copy editor’s value, I realized that what I’ve been doing in the MW Beta group has a name. I’m a great copy-editor. Sure, I can point out other things, too, but copy-editing is definitely my greatest strength.

    What this means for me is that I’ve intensely copy-edited my own work. So if a beta-reader catches something I missed, I’m grateful, because I’m aware that I’m not infallable.

    I’ll let you know how I feel when I encounter this for real, though. 😉

  • Copy edits always embarrass me. I always read them and think “dear lord, how did I miss that!?!” Semi-professionally, I’m a content editor, and I’ve found that I’m actually good at it. Copy editing? So not so much. I miss things all the time. It especially peeves me because I have a phd in English,so I should be able to use the language correctly! Copy editing my dissertation was a harrowing and humiliating experience. I have had moments in my editing gig when I’ve gone over copy editors or line editors notes and said “nope, that’s not right.” But they are few and far between and I really usually give in to CEs. Especially with house style. I’ve even taken to leaving notes for line and copy editors like “I’m not sure how house style does this…” so they know I’m not an utter moron.

    If I ever decide to self publish I will spend money on a reputable CE. Because I’ve found, too, that in some self pubbed stuff, the copy editing (grammar, basic use of language) is so bad that even if the story is good, the other stuff gets in the way, and that’s a shame!

  • I’ve read some great novels and hated them because of bad copy editing. Nothing pulls me out of a story quicker.

    When I received my copy edit, I cringed at the amount of red ink – the ‘e’ kind, but cringeworthy none-the-less.

    It taught me a very important lesson that I’d only known theoretically – Being a child of England and Australia, I write in English english. It’s during the ensuing drafts that I translate it to American english, and of course words get missed – the lesson is, a good copy editor is a writer’s very best friend.

  • Mindy, I remember the first time I got a copy edit. It followed the *killed-my-baby* textual edit, so it wasn’t as horrible to me as it might have been otherwise. In fact, I had a great CE the first time around who caught all sorts of things and made the book so very much better.

    Since then, I’ve had only one horrific CE, who shall remain nameless, whose comments and questions were so snarky I wanted to scream, and who changed all my hypehated world building words into non hyphenated words and changed spellings and removed caps and who made me so mad I wanted to…. Well, it was bad enough that I pulled out a bottle of good cheer. The next week, my editor at the time called to apologise. Seems the CE had been bad to several people and would not be used again. But it is rare that such CEs come into my life. Most are gems.

  • Razziecat

    Believe it or not, I think I’d actually look forward to this kind of editing. These are exactly the kind of details that would drive me crazy if they weren’t caught. And I find it less upsetting than critiques of the plot or the characters.

  • I have been very lucky with most of my copy edits, as well as my substantive edits on drafts, etc. The hardest thing for me was learning to accept criticism, making myself take it not as “your book sucks” but rather as “here’s what we can do to make your book even better.” The difference is huge, and is, to me, the demarcation between petulance and professionalism.