What Copy Editors Do and How They Save the World

Dickens and editorFor 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

writer v. copy editorReading 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.

gin before copy editors1 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.

copy editors at work



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. copy editors work slowly

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.

copy editors love old booksThey 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!

copy editor rocksIn 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. copy editor accuracySometimes 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

copy editors rescue readersYou 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

copy editors shakespeare accused of poachingThe 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.

smirk copy editors please saveCopy 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.

I salute them.

21 thoughts on “What Copy Editors Do and How They Save the World

  1. jay Dixon

    I think this is a succinct summary of the editor’s job, but these days there is a distinction made between copyeditor and line editor. The copyeditor deals with grammar, typos, etc and the line editor deals with consistency, geographical and historical accuracy, characterisation, etc. I’ve never understood why the two have been separated – when I started in the industry 40 odd years ago it was one edit covering both aspects.

    jay, who is very grateful to Jenny for her appreciation!

    1. janegordoncumming

      I suppose it would be cynical to suggest that due to the period when grammar wasn’t taught in schools (hampered the child’s creativity or something), there’s a whole generation of young people, now working in publishing, who simply haven’t the skills to copy edit.

      1. Sophie Post author

        Have to say that hasn’t been my experience as a writer, Jane.

        But as a reader – well, it might account for the continued high-jacking of ‘smirked’, I suppose.

        1. Joanna

          Chipping in as I’m back from hols!

          I do agree on “smirking” which hero/heroine should never do, I reckon. I’m definitely on the Uriah Heep side there. But I had an editor who hated the word “chuckle” and always took it out. Not sure why. And there ARE moments in a story when only a chuckle will do, in my opinion. Not a laugh, not even a soft laugh, not a grin, not a smile, definitely NOT a snort. Sometimes it has to be a chuckle. Feel free to disagree, especially if “chuckle” gives you memories of “Have some Madeira, m’dear” ????

          1. Sophie Post author

            It’s interesting how some words just set your teeth on edge, isn’t it? I like “chuckle”, though. It sounds friendly. Maybe she’d been frightened by the Chuckle Brothers when young?

  2. Sophie Post author

    I’ve often wondered what the difference was between the two, jay. Thank you for clarifying. The latest “copy edit” I received covered both. But it was commissioned by the publisher, not me, so I have no idea what the originating brief was.

    I must remember, when commissioning a copy edit for my independently published books, to specify both elements!

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh, those smirking heroes! Completely agree that a hero doesn’t smirk. Even less a heroine, thank you. Totally puts me off if I come across that one as a reader.

    Also glad to get the distinction between copy and line editors. Seems a silly distinction frankly. Unless the line editor is expected to have a more general knowledge where your copy editor acts as grammar police and is more in the proofreading line.

    All quite different from developmental editors, which is what I normally do and what we do for the NWS scheme if we read for it.

    I’ve actually now taken on a job which is an edit plus rewrite as needed – don’t know what the heck that’s called! Sort of a cross between an editor and ghostwriter!

    1. Sophie Post author

      It was a new distinction to me, too, Liz and not one self-evident from the title. Extremely glad to have it cleared up by jay.

  4. Ann Palmer

    Just what I’ve been wanting to read for ages. The article is written in such a way that you come away really understanding the role of the copy editor and I love the witty style of writing. Thank you so much.

  5. Sophie Post author

    So very glad if it helped, Ann.

    And thank you very much for your kind comments, too. Much appreciated.

  6. Katie Fforde

    Really interesting! Although I’ve always experienced a bigger difference between editor and copy editor. My editor might well say ‘sags in the middle’ and the copy editor will say ‘February has four weeks not five.’ In my experience copy editors who act as editors get a lot of STETS. One of mine in the early days took out my jokes, took over my plot and wanted to change the ending. Ghastly. Now my favourite first editor is my copy editor and although she’s very nit-picky, she does know when I’m joking. Such a relief!

    1. Sophie Post author

      AAARGH, plot interference, ending change AND no laughs. Sounds like the marriage from hell. Shuddering here.

      Though, I admit that I’ve had both editor and copy editor who didn’t get my jokes, Katie. I’ve always felt that I don’t have much confidence, but I remember saying quite firmly, “You don’t think it’s funny, lots of people may well not think it’s funny, but Sophie Weston readers will. Trust me.” Quite a liberating moment!

  7. Sue McCormick

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a retired copy editor I find your description both correct and kind.

    I retired before there was a distinction between copy editor and line editor. I don’t believe I could live that way. It if feels wrong, I MUST do something about it. Perhaps correct it and perhaps question the author about it.

    I do feel you may have missed one point. Our English language is rich, and sometime redundant, but is is also easily misinterpreted. When we write we hear a certain accent, the reader may hear a different one:

    did I give you something tangible (or stand beside you)?
    Or did I attempt to explain something or/or sway you to my side.

    English very, very full of those words. Most of the time, the context makes it clear. But when it is not clear the sentence can become meaningless.

    When I saw one of those in a manuscript I wrote a note — did you mean to say …[interpretation 1] or did you mean …[interpretation 2]. Many, many times, the rewrite will come back as “neither.”

    This is something the author will seldom see. Because you know what you mean, and your spelling is correct, you will never notice the other possibility.

    Pleas note that I asked a question about meanings. I never committed the rudeness that Katie remarked on, although I know that some copy editors have done so. I always saw my job as one of clarification — NOT of rewriting (except on galleys in the case of widows and orphans — and then I tried valiantly to use the authors own words).

    1. Sophie Post author

      That’s an excellent point, Sue.

      And it’s true, too, that I hear what I’m writing and forget that the reader can’t. It takes a long time for the echo to die, too. Much longer than the gap of time between writing and copy-editing in my experience.

  8. Mimi Matthews

    Fabulous post! I especially relate to the brain seeing what it wants to see. When I’m reading (especially my own work), my brain fills in missing letters, words, & punctuation and makes corrections all on its own. As a result, editors find things I never even see. Thank goodness for editors!

    1. Sophie Post author

      Good point, Mimi.

      If I pick up typos and other brain scramble in someone else’s writing (unless it’s for a friend who has specifically asked me to look for errors) it’s a sure sign that I’m not really engaged with the characters.

      Didn’t someone do an experiment taking out a lot of vowels and people could still make sense of it? The brain just supplied the missing data.

      Thanks goodness for editors indeed. Also critique partners, Joanna!

      1. Joanna

        Blushing here, Sophie! But, unlike you, I can be fully engaged with the characters and the story and still see typos. That bit of my brain clearly doesn’t switch off. Or sumfink.

        1. janegordoncumming

          Yes, I spot typos, and they distract my attention and pull me out of the story. I’m horrified (have I said it here already?) how many occur in the current reprints of the Georgette Heyers, something she would never have allowed. I guess they’re scanning errors, but nobody seems to have been tasked with reading through and picking them up.

          1. Sophie Post author

            Oh, that’s such a shame, Jane. I haven’t had to buy a replacement Heyer for a few years now, and haven’t come across any errors in my most recent re-purchases – Venetia and Sylvester. But, as I say, I might well not, because I’m so deep in the story.

            I remember when HMB started putting up early e-book editions of my back titles, I started getting irate messages from readers who kept falling over nonsense stuff. It was clearly down to uncorrected scanning. I haven’t had any of those for a while now, I’m glad to say.

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