Monday, July 27, 2009

Guest Blogger Becky Durost Fish on Copyediting

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 U.S. law, the army chief of staff is a full general.

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 University of Chicago Press, it doesn’t address issues unique to fiction. Some of its guidelines are not workable in every situation. So most publishing houses, including Barbour, have in-house style guides that describe how they want specific issues handled, especially when they differ from CMS.

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 Pennsylvania to “correct” a line of dialogue from “It needs fixed” to the more standard “It needs to be fixed” or “It needs fixing.”

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.


Vickie McDonough said...


Thanks for this interesting blog. It's cool to hear about copy-editing from the copy-editor's pov. I've never heard of that regional dictionary before, but it sounds handy to have.

Mary Connealy said...

This is really interesting Becky. I am always amazed at the words Aaron tells me weren't in use during the time I was writing.

Some of them I'd have never even considered as not in regular usage.

I mean my 1880 western cattle drive...I say the cowboys gathered around the chuckwagon to microwave their frozen pizza's...I can see when Aaron points that out the man has a point.

But some of the words...

Anyway, the point is, I am in AWE of how much editors have to know.
Although, Aaron, if you're out there, I'm gonna have to use the word Cowgirl in a soon to be released book. We might have to come to terms on that. I may actually invent the word right there, spell it out...what? I've never heard anyone called a Cowgirl before.

Well, I reckon I am one so that's what I'm calling myself.

That could work.

Thanks you for your hard work. All of you.

Carrie Turansky said...

Hi Becky, Thanks for letting us know more about your job ad copy-editor. I am grateful to know you are there, working hard to check everything for us!

Thanks for the finishing touches you add to make our books shine.


Erica Vetsch said...

A very interesting blog post today. I would love to leaf through those regional dictionaries. :)

I'm learning more all the time about the process of getting a book from the writer to the reader and all the people that process takes.

Edna said...

oh my I don't think I would like that job, sometimes when I am reading a published book, I find mistakes in it, so I know it would be so hard to find every little thing, please look at my blog and leave me a comment.


Aaron McCarver said...

Thanks, Becky, for the great blog. Becky is Diane's and my copyeditor on our current TN series. She is fantastic!!! And, Becky, you do just what you say. Never have I felt that you imposed yourself on our writing. You just catch what needs to be made correct or better. As a copyeditor, I try to approach it as you do. It is a very tough job, but one I absolutely love! And, Mary, just remember that according to M-W online, cowgirl originated in 1884. Please change that word. :)

Cara Putman said...

zbecky, you have been such a jewel to work with on my books. I'm so grateful that JoAnne paired us up.

Diane Ashley said...

Barbour has the best copyeditors! Having Becky check Aaron's and my books has been a very positive experience. Her desire to protect the integrity of our writing has come through with each email she's sent. She has truly made our novels stronger without intruding on our creative choices.

Thanks, Becky, for your hard work and for letting us see into your world. Will you be coming to ACFW in September? I'd love to meet you.

Mary Connealy said...

EXCEPT this is the NEXT series and it takes place in 1884, except that's book three that's in 1884.


I will as always obey you, Aaron.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Thanks for that post Becky! It was very interesting and insightful! I recognize your name, too! I've worked with you through another Christian publisher (not Barbour). I recall working with both you and your husband Bruce!

Susan Page Davis said...

I'm blessed with Becky Fish as copy editor on my Ladies' Shooting Club Series, and she's terrific. The thing I love most about her edits is: she lets each character keep his voice. I absolutely love her dedication and diligence. She doesn't let anything wrong get by, but she lets the author shine.
And these editors are GOOD. Aaron is doing my Alaska Heartsongs, and in the latest edit, he caught several things that just weren't clear, and two spots where I used the wrong character's name (oh, woe! It must have been after 9 p.m. when I wrote that scene!)

Pepper Basham said...

Wow, you're job is technical - and what a big job too. You have to be prepared for EVERYTHING. My respect keeps growing. Thanks for sharing this info.

Aaron McCarver said...

OK, Mary, it seems close enough so we might can swing it. I actually liked the idea of your character coining the phrase. Oh no, am I losing my tough touch? :) Thanks, Susan, but come on now, you leave so very little to catch! Wonderful job!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to chime in and say what a great copyeditor Becky is! I love working with her. And she truly has never tried to change my voice--only make it better! I also love that JoAnne paired us up for the Arkansas series--it helps so much to have the same editor for each book.
Thanks for the great blog, and for all you do to make our stories better, Becky!