Copyediting: What to Expect

After you’ve taken your manuscript through two or three rounds of initial edits with your editor, it will be passed along to a copyeditor, who examines each line of text with a fine-toothed comb. When you receive your manuscript back from them—coffee-stained and curling at the edges—it will be peppered with proofreader symbols along with corrections on typos, spacing, wording, grammar, that type of thing, written in one color (usually red pencil); and directions specifically for the typesetter about  font, design elements, etc. in another color (probably green). There will also be a slew of sticky-notes attached to the pages with questions for you regarding every detail of your manuscript imaginable. Daunting as it may seem, this is a good thing. We want to get it right, and these folks are the eagle-eye, nitpickers we need to zero in on the minutia we may have glossed over. You’ll get specific queries, such as: “Gyp is derived from the word gypsy and can be seen as a derogatory. Change to cheat?” “Kleenex is a TM and they insist on using Kleenex-brand-tissues. Substitute tissues instead?” “The ice cream is still  rock solid after a night in a powerless freezer? Revise or OK?” “They’ll also point out copyrighted material in your text—things like poems and song lyrics. For instance, I had just assumed that the song “Happy Birthday” was in the public domain, meaning, free. Wrong! You can only quote so many lines from it before your publisher would have to pay royalties. Who knew? There are ways to fudge it, though. Just use bits and pieces of the song—or substitute a few lyrics with “dum-dee-dums,” that sort of thing. Your publisher’s Legal Department will most likely be the final judge. 

For your changes, you’ll be asked to use a different color pencil from the copyeditor’s marks (I chose purple) and to write directly onto the manuscript. (Don’t even think about using an ink pen!) If you agree with a suggested change, you simply leave it as marked; if you disagree, you mark a dotted line under the words you want to keep and write STET in the margin, which means “let stand.” Now is also the best time to make your last major changes, adding or deleting copy, because after your book is typeset it gets difficult and expensive for the publisher to do so. This can take skill on your part. You have to use neat, teeny-tiny handwriting (or I should say hand-printing) to fit between the lines of text, and it must be done with the utmost of clarity. If I’m changing more than a word or two, I like to work out that specific section on my computer screen first and then transfer it into the manuscript, to avoid over-erasing and—heaven forbid!—holes in the paper. You’ll be advised, when adding more than a just few sentences, to type out the new text on a separate piece of paper, then clip it to the page. Heed this advice. 

Now, what about all those proofreader’s marks? I think it’s wise to have a list of them handy as you’re working through your edits to interpret what all the hieroglyphics mean—those little squiggles, symbols, carets, and lines. Most of these are intended for the typesetter, but you should be able to decipher them yourself so you can incorporate them when marking your changes. Little, Brown had provided me with an instructional booklet entitled “From Manuscript to Printed Book” which included a glossary of proofreader marks, but Walker/Bloomsbury didn’t. They’re easy enough to find online, though. Merriam-Webster’s site has a good one:

You’ll usually have a pretty short period of time in which to complete your copy edits and return them to your publisher—I had less than a week. So, it’s essential to work fast and work smart. Keep a pencil sharpener handy (the sharper the pencil point, the easier it is to write clearly in limited space). Resist the urge to work outdoors. If a thunderstorm or a mighty wind comes along, you could be in a heap of trouble—tons of work went into copyediting these pages and there’s no computer backup. As a safety net, I like to take notes on all the major changes I’ve made to the manuscript just in case there are follow-up questions. (And there are always follow-up questions.) This is an exciting time. After you’ve completed the copy editing process, your manuscript will be sent off to the typesetter. This means the galleys are right around the corner!


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