Definitions of Editing: Copyediting

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This post continues this short series about different types of editing with a look at copyediting.

Copyediting takes place after structural editing and rewriting have finished and the commissioning editor has taken delivery of the author’s final draft. To return to the gardening analogy, copyediting is like garden maintenance: pruning, mowing the lawn, tidying up the flowerbeds. Maybe a shrub can be moved to a sunnier spot, but reorganisation usually isn’t too extensive. Copyediting is a form of spadework, turning over every word to be sure it’s fresh and alive – though of course, in practical terms, sometimes all that’s needed is a trowel and a hand fork, rather than a bulldozer.

The work involves a wide variety of tasks, depending on the needs of the book, and whether a light edit or a heavy edit is expected; the commissioning editor should give a clear brief to the copyeditor.

The Basic Tasks: Correcting And Standardising
A light edit will fix only obvious errors, and be little more than a proofread of the writing (see future post on proofreading); you sometimes see the terms mechanical editing and technical editing used to describe these sorts of tasks too.

Mistakes will be corrected. Some will be mechanical or technological errors – careless things that slip through our drafting: typos, missing words. Slips of the keyboard and word-processing mistakes arise because composition usually takes place on screen and we are continuously tinkering with our sentences and introducing errors in the process (you might spot a few here): incorrect verb agreements; the Cut & Paste that cuts too little or pastes over one word too many; an earlier Search & Replace of ‘-ise’ endings that has resulted in ‘advertize’ and ‘televize’. Many of us even write or revise on the hoof nowadays, editing documents kept in the Cloud, and we know how the autocorrect has a life all of its own … (Yes, I really did intend to say its there, Apple, not it’s. And I did not mean duck off.)

Other outright errors might need fixing in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, though such matters are rarely straightforward. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, many of the rules of grammar are open to interpretation. I prefer the idea of usage to grammar, and aim to follow a writer’s preferences. Though I do have a few bugbears: after I saw the light on the difference between that and which, there was no going back. But even so, there is no point in changing whiches to thats if it’s not really necessary.

The idea of consistency is perhaps an easier rule to follow. Certain forms will be standardised: hyphens, capitals, abbreviations, the use of italics, the treatment of numbers and dates, variations in spelling. Copyeditor, copy-editor, or copy editor? Even the experts can’t agree: all are right, and none are wrong (or should that be none is wrong … ?!). But on the whole we should choose one standard and avoid mixing forms within a document. Consistency is perhaps a golden rule in copyediting.

Publishers’ guidelines often make decision-making easier, with a house style imposed upon the text for these and other matters, e.g., Oxford commas, -ise/-ize endings, single/double quotation marks. In practice, house style is often loosely employed, though again internal consistency is usually expected.

Either British or US conventions in both spelling and punctuation will be followed more strictly. If a US author is being published in the UK, US style will be followed – and in practice US manuscripts are not likely to be copyedited in the UK anyway, as a UK publisher will simply take the copyedited, typeset and proofread text from the US. But for some reason – age of empire? – you sometimes see American publishers changing UK spellings and terms. I never forget finding Wite-Out in the American edition of a bestselling, prizewinning British author’s coming-of-age novel set in the Midlands; we use Tipp-Ex in the UK. Don’t American publishers trust their readers to have imaginations and contextual reasoning?

Beyond matters of form, copyediting also addresses aspects of content. Continuity errors, ambiguities, anachronisms, points of confusion, and biased expressions might be flagged. Sometimes these can be easily fixed, but sometimes they need to be queried with the author.

The copyeditor might do some fact-checking or at least flag points that might need confirming. The New Yorker famously has a whole department of fact-checkers, but verifying every nugget of information in a manuscript could take an impractically long time. On the whole, book publishers rely on their authors to be authorities in their fields, and there is only so much that a copyeditor can be expected to know. That being said, it’s not unusual for copyeditors to have their own niches (gardening; crime fiction), and if necessary publishers will send a manuscript out to specialist readers, just as writers might include experts among their beta readers (e.g., a medieval historian for that novel set during the Crusades).

Copyeditors might flag any permissions that need clearing, and also note possible legal problems (e.g., libel, plagiarism), but it’s not really their responsibility to find solutions to such matters, and any concerns should be addressed with a legal read by a lawyer, which is in fact often a condition of a publisher’s insurance protection. In practice, legal matters are rarely an issue, and they tend to be more important for works of nonfiction, but fiction is not exempt from the eye of the law; that disclaimer about all characters and events being fictitious and resemblances to persons living or dead being coincidental counts for little if someone can prove damages. Publishers and authors want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of lawsuits or settlements, but, as in many matters of the law, much is a matter of interpretation and risk.

In addition to such basic matters of handling content, a copyeditor is usually tasked on marking up the text for the designed page, e.g., organising and indicating levels of headings, indenting extracted text, flagging positions for inserting illustrations. Other aspects of cleaning up the text include, for example, making sure that chapter headings in the text match those on the contents page. Editing front and back matter could be a job in its own right for works of nonfiction that have detailed notes, bibliographies, and appendices.

Sometimes copyeditors working on screen are also asked to format text in some way, e.g., coding headings or styling them as bold, and making sure there is only one character space after the full stop at the end of a sentence. But in many ways this sort of technical work is best performed by a typesetter. Copyeditors are not always trained keyboard operators, and a typesetter can be faster and more accurate.

Going Further: Improving And Refining
Anything more than the minimum requirements of copyediting requires a degree of editorial judgement that goes beyond simply correcting mistakes. I often use the term line editing for this sort of work, as it reflects the fact that the editor goes over the writing line by line, not only checking the words but assessing how they fit into sentences and paragraphs and analysing how they can be improved. Other specific terms introduce nuances to the sort of editing that is required; substantive editing, sub-editing, content editing, stylistic editing, creative editing, micro editing, and language editing. They all amount to much the same thing.

Clunky syntax, repetitions, non sequiturs, irrelevancies, digressions, fluffy clauses, excessive detail, weighty explanations, distracting miscues, clichés: various stylistic infelicities are subjective matters, but a good copyeditor can trim, tweak, and recast sentences to improve on them.

Editorial changes can, if desired, go even further in the refinement of prose style. The passive voice can be made active. Emphasis can be created through rhythm and echo. Verb use can be tightened, and excessive adjectives or adverbs can be pruned. Long and unwieldy sentences heavy with subordinate clauses can be broken down into shorter, clearer sentences, or maybe lots of choppy, short sentences can be smoothed together into a longer, sinewy one. Word choices can be made more concrete and specific. And it’s not always about the words; even subtle things such as commas and paragraph breaks can make a difference to voice and pace.

And edits can go beyond syntax, too. Whole paragraphs of description might be cut to leave that line of dialogue that now conjures up a character more forcefully. Lengthy sequences of interior monologue can be focused into that strong central image that would otherwise be lost. Suggestions for clarification or expansion can be made.

Such smoothing of form and content, word by word, can not only enhance the coherence of writing, but also create mood and introduce energy. An author once thanked me for ‘tightening and brightening’ her text. I think tightening and brightening are excellent ways to think about this sort of editing.

Ideally, as edits get heavier, word choices are derived from the original text, even if, for example, nouns are recast as verbs. But sometimes more substantial rewriting does happen. It depends on what is expected, and goes back to the editor’s brief. ‘Good copy-editing is invisible: it aims to present the book the author would have written if he or she had had more time or experience – not, as some new copy-editors think, their own improved version,’ says Judith Butcher, author of the standard UK manual Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press enjoying the hyphen in that instance).

Deeper and more extensive editing for voice and style that extends into rewriting does, in fact, beg the question of how a commissioned manuscript is suitable for publication in the first place. A heavy edit or rewrite might be desired for various nonfiction writers who are not professional writers but have credentials in other areas (yoga teachers, business leaders), or perhaps they’re academics whose style is rather dense for a trade book and needs some untangling or lightening. Translations often need some assistance on their way into English. Sometimes it’s the content of a novel – the concept, the storytelling, the characters – that was compelling to a commissioning editor, and the pace and voice can be improved through copyediting.

At a certain point, of course, rewriting is so extensive that it is basically ghostwriting, which creates a whole other set of conditions for the creation of a book. Usually the ghostwriter or cowriter has a particular agreement with the author; sometimes the ghost is an experienced journalist, with skills in interviewing and drawing material out of a subject. And then the manuscript gets shaped and typed up – and this too will need copyediting and often structural editing too. In my experience some ghostwriters – like many journalists – need quite a lot of editing, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are used to having their copy rewritten by sub-editors.

How Copyediting Is Carried Out
Once upon a time, publishers employed full-time in-house copyeditors, but the work is now usually done by freelancers who can devote time to projects with fewer interruptions; this can be painstaking work, and it might take at least twenty or thirty hours (or more) to lightly copyedit even a short 200-page book.

In-house editors are more likely to manage other desk-based work involved in editorial production; different publishers use different job titles and job descriptions, but you might encounter a managing editor, a desk editor, or a production editor, and thus the terms editorial managementdesk editing, and production editing. What they do is basically project management. They line up suitable freelance copyeditors or proofreaders. They integrate an author’s responses to an edit into the final manuscript. They collate proofs, write cover copy, brief designers and illustrators, and carry out numerous detailed functions that ensure the best book is produced on time. Sometimes they work on structural edits, or even find time to copyedit. They’ll also deal with all sorts of other editorial and administrative activities: preparing costings, checking contracts, chasing royalty statements, reading submissions, liaising with marketing and publicity managers, and generally acting as an in-house sponsor and support for the author. Depending on the size and organisation of the publisher, certain editorial activities might be carried out by a commissioning editor, a desk editor, or an editorial assistant.

Manuscript editing is another term you come across, though it seems to be a loose definition. Sometimes it describes the work of a manuscript review or critique, which amounts to a structural overview. But I’ve also seen this used to describe all the work of handling a manuscript. I guess it’s useful to be clear about what is meant by people you’re working with.

Traditionally, copyediting was done on a hard copy of a manuscript; when I first started out in publishing, many books were still typed, and even those that were word-processed were printed out for editing and eventually rekeyed by the typesetter. Edits were made in pencil, in case anything needed erasing. Queries were noted on Post-its, or even written on slips of paper that were pinned (yes, with pins) to the manuscript (I guess pins were more secure than paperclips). A typed list of queries could be more practical though, especially if a manuscript was to be photocopied for showing to the author.

Eventually, technology caught up, and publishers were able to take authors’ text in electronic format, but careful protocols are needed for incorporating editorial changes to the text. Nowadays, Tracked Changes and Comments functions are frequently used for editing and querying on screen, though these are not always easy to handle; it can be wrist-numbing to go through a document Accepting or Rejecting changes one by one, and versions of documents sometimes get confused … To my mind, nothing really beats copyediting a master copy in hard format. Not least, I am sure the eye catches things on hard copy that it misses scrolling down a screen.

A copyeditor will also produce a style sheet, which confirms variants in usage that have been followed, e.g., that copyeditor is one word, that the king takes a lower-case k, and that words rather than figures are used for numbers up to one hundred. Preferred spellings will be listed too, e.g., judgement (rather than judgment), leaped (rather than leapt).

It is important for an author to see the copyedited manuscript, though I am surprised how often this seems not to happen. An author usually needs to answer a copyeditor’s queries, e.g., simple checks about the intention of ambiguous wording, or notes about inconsistencies that need resolving with fresh copy. But an author also needs to see that all of the copyeditor’s changes are acceptable. It is the author’s name on the cover, after all.

Subsequently all of the author’s responses will be incorporated into the manuscript (by either the freelance copyeditor or an in-house editor). This can involve follow-up for clarifications. After that, a master copy of the manuscript will be ready for typesetting, and then proofs will be proofread ( more on that in a future post).

Do Writers Need To Get Their Own Work Copyedited?
On the whole, the answer is No if you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, but Yes if you are self-publishing. If you are being published, your publisher should take care of this. I’ll address these matters in more detail in another post.

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