For some time now, people have been asking me to write about what copy editors do and why they’re important. This is a companion piece to last year’s little trot through the origins and history of publishers’ editing: “What Editors Do”.
Why now? I have just actually been reviewing the copy editor’s changes on the text of my new book. So the mind is focused on what I did and what it felt like.
I should point out that, like my blog on editors, this is highly personal. Though I have also drawn on conversations with copy editors and a great talk, some years ago at an RNA Chapter, by jay Dixon, a trained copy editor.
Emotions Aroused by the Copy Editor
Reading a copy editor’s comments can be quite an emotional experience for writers.
OK, most writers tear their hair out in the drama of deadlines versus domesticity. Happens at least once a book to me.
But there are three reasons why copy editing can be particularly painful.
1 Copy edits come at the end of everything. You’ve finished the first draft (AAARGH). You’ve done everything your editor wanted (hiss, spit, make tea, weep, re-write, polish; possibly several times). If you’re lucky you’ve had a word or two of praise. You’ve broken out the gin.
2 And now you’re being marked like a (not very good) student in an exam. Corrections in red. Could do better.
3 You’ve come to the end of the line. Now you have to get out and walk. You’ve been motoring up to now. This is grindingly SLOW.
I’m not saying it’s fair, certainly not to the copy editor.
I’m not saying it’s rational.
It’s human. Feel it. Forget it.
Copy Editors Monitor language
Basically this means they keep you grammatical, properly spelled, well punctuated and consistent in the use of hyphens. For anyone like me who gets fogged up between English and American usage, this is invaluable.
They correct the occasional Malapropism. (“The importance of bondage between a mother and a child” – thank you, Dan Quayle.)
Software word checking can’t do that. It’s aimed at spelling, not sense. But sometimes your synapses scramble the word before you can type it. Sometimes Autocorrect strikes.
They also consider style in the bigger picture – vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length – in the context of a house style, if you are published by a third party or, perhaps, in the context of readers of similar books to your own, if you’re an independent.
Copy Editors Monitor Internal Consistency
When jay Dixon showed us her consistency list, I was astonished. She had a calendar of events. She also had page for each character on which she noted not only their appearance and back story, but every time they appeared, key things they said, any preferences they had. Emma Bovary’s eyes wouldn’t have changed colour on her watch!
In my own recent novel, the copy editor caught one of my minor characters drinking the wrong comfort beverage. “Too right,” I shouted and did a couple of cartwheels.
I’d also changed the names of two of my minor characters in a couple of places. Both were pure brain scramble. BUT I would never have caught them myself in a month of Sundays. I’d have seen what I expected to see.
Copy Editors Monitor External Consistency
The extent of this depends on what the publisher or the independent author asks them to do. Sometimes they just raise a query – SUBTEXT “Look it up, if you’re haven’t already. Looks a bit iffy to me.”
Sometimes, as with Regency novels, for example, the copy editor will have seen both the history and the common errors so frequently, she knows the answer.
Historical fact, geographic distances, forms of address, even prevailing fashion – I’ve seen copy editors asking for sources to check all of these, when something in the novel they’re working on just strikes a wrong note. Experience tells here.
Risks of No Copy Editing
You can seriously confuse your reader, so they simply lose track of the story.
You look a) careless or b) an idiot, so that the reader spends their time tutting, instead of engaging with your characters.
Too much of that and you have a bunch seriously pissed-off readers. They feel insulted. Or contemptuous.
It reminds me of once buying a (cheap) pair of trousers and discovering, when I got them home, that I had to turn up the hems myself. I did it, but I was mightily annoyed and hated the trousers for ever. Even though it was cheap, I never went back to the shop again.
How Copy Editors Save the World
The philosophers tell you that the English language is alive and living things change. When Shakespeare said, “Presently,” he meant in the present, now, at once. In the twentieth century it became the classic postponing word.
“Gay” once meant light-hearted, carefree, brightly coloured; beribboned, even. In living memory, too.
Copy editors keep the peoples of the world understanding each other by making sure that authors use words in the same sense as the majority of English speaking users.
(Though “smirking” is now badly at risk, among certain sections of the romance community. Yet it has a wonderfully useful association of grubby complacence, point-scoring and all-round loathsomeness. Think Uriah Heap. And crocodiles. Heroes don’t smirk, people!)
Copy editors of novels keep quotations precise; historical detail accurate; and journeys from Land’s End to John O’Groats taking longer than a couple of hours. No matter what the flying fingers of the novelist heading for THE END may do in writer’s exaltation, copy editors keep us sane.