Copyediting is a mystery to many writers, and it doesn’t help that various publishing houses give their copyeditors different responsibilities. When JoAnne asked me to write about copyediting, I thought I’d focus on three aspects that should be part of every copyeditor’s work.
First, a copyeditor is a fact checker. While it may be easy enough to understand the need for this in nonfiction or historical fiction, contemporary fiction also requires fact checking. Little things sneak in. I recently worked on a manuscript where a heroine was rolling up the window of a late model car—or was she actually closing it? (Rolling up implies cranking a handle, not pushing a button.) The fictional head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in another manuscript was identified as a brigadier general, but by
When I can’t independently verify something in a manuscript, I’ll run it by the author(s). And here’s where writers can be a great help to their copyeditors. Use primary sources or draw from secondary sources with solid reputations for doing their own fact checking. Don’t rely on Wikipedia to establish a fact. While much of what it contains is correct and it can give us great leads for further research, Wikipedia itself is not checked for accuracy, and many of its entries contain factual errors. Similarly, collections of quotations are notorious for incorrect attributions. They’re a literary form of gossip—“We heard that Martin Luther said such and such.” That may be the popular assumption, but until the quotation can be paired with and checked against a specific work by Martin Luther, we can’t claim definitively that Martin Luther said it.
A second task for copyeditors is to make sure the manuscript adheres to the publisher’s style. Style is a general term that encompasses policies about everything from grammar to punctuation, from capitalization to the spelling out of numbers. Most book publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition as their authoritative style reference. But because CMS was originally developed for use by the
As the existence of a 15th edition of CMS indicates, rules for style and grammar change over time. Part of a copyeditor’s job is to keep current on these changes. Good copyediting requires a bit of art, as well. For example, regionalisms should be respected. It would kill the authentic sound of a novel taking place in western
A third part of the copyeditor’s life is nurturing an attitude of humility and servanthood. If you could peek into my office, you’d see stacks of books on grammar, usage, style, slang—even several volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English. (A member of a collector’s group I belong to referred to such stacks as “teetering towers of death.”) And that doesn’t include the number of reference books I rely on for questions about history and technology. But no matter how many resources we have, how much reading we do, how many hours we spend on the Internet or in a library, none of us can know everything about everything. When I can’t verify something a writer has used, I don’t assume the writer is wrong. I give writers opportunities to present research that supports what they’ve done. When a sentence or paragraph doesn’t make sense to me, I ask the writer what he or she is trying to communicate so that we can come to agreement on how best to express that idea to the reader. And if any of you ever wonder why I changed your writing in a particular way, let me know. I’ll be happy to either explain why I changed things or to admit I goofed.
Perhaps the most important thing I do as a copyeditor is to try not to make changes just for the sake of it. I ask myself why I think a change is necessary. If I can’t come up with any better explanation than personal preference, I stop. Being a copyeditor is to be entrusted with someone else’s creation. And in the end, the writer should be proud to have his or her name on the cover of the published book, not embarrassed because the contents sound like something someone else wrote.