The Copyediting Process

I posted several months ago on how I decide what to leave alone in a novel I’m copyediting. I’ve been meaning ever since to post an article on exactly what my copyediting process is, but I’ve been putting it off because it seems so difficult to condense and codify the steps I take when I work on a manuscript. I’ve decided to give it a try, though.

First things first. When a manuscript comes across my desk, it may or may not have edits from the in-house editor or production editor already on it. If it does, my first step is to go through those edits to get a feel for exactly what the in-house editor sees as a problem: particular sentence structures that bother them, a term or capitalization that they want changed, and so on. (Editors also sometimes include a note detailing such concerns, which is very helpful.) I will follow the in-house editor’s lead on this unless I see that they’ve been inconsistent, in which case I will e-mail a query.

My next step is to begin my first editing pass, which is a painstakingly slow phase. During this pass, I will create a design memo, a manuscript table of contents, and a style sheet (a list of all names, terms, spellings, hyphenations, capitalizations, grammar styles, etc.); keymark items for design; verify all facts; flag for myself any items that I feel the author may have been inconsistent on; look up all spellings and word usage I’m even remotely unsure of; verify all foreign-language use to the extent that I can; apply consistent style guidelines (such as the use of a serial comma, if that has been requested); and query the author on any awkward or unclear phrasing, change of terms, inaccurate facts, inconsistencies, or numerous other things I may find.

Oh, and I edit it, of course. :-)

Most of the above items are self-explanatory, but I’ll expand upon the keymarking and the flags I make for myself.

Keymarking in fiction is usually fairly straightforward, because there are seldom many elements that need special treatment. Basically, however, any element that looks different than plain text gets its own keymark—a set of circled letters such as “CN” for chapter number—that tells the designer it needs to have design specifications written for it. You might typically have part numbers and titles, chapter numbers and titles, epigraphs, ornament breaks, and extracts (verse or prose). I keymark each element and note all the keymarks and examples of their usage on the design memo I create. I make a table of contents for each manuscript I copyedit because a) it enables me to verify that the chapter numbers are correct (they’re very often wrong), and b) it’s useful for designers to know the lengths of the longest and shortest chapter titles when they’re deciding on fonts and sizes. If it is clear from the text that the author wants certain extracts to appear handwritten and others to appear typewritten (and hopefully I have a note to this effect), those elements receive separate keymarks, because of course their specs won’t be the same.

Creating flags for myself that detail the location of potential inconsistencies is an admittedly anal practice I’ve developed over the years, but one I find extremely helpful. I place these flags along the top of the manuscript (flags for authors and editors go along the sides unless I’ve been asked to type them separately), and I go back through them on subsequent passes, so that they’re all removed by the time I’m done. What is a “potential inconsistency”? Well, just about anything. :-) There are particular classes of things, though, where authors are more likely to vary.

First is anything that needs to be correlated to the passage of time in the story. This might include ages, moon phases, seasons, and pregnancy progression. Every time a passage of time is noted, or the progression of something correlated with it is noted (e.g., “the moon was full”), I flag it for myself.

Another class is specific types of items, whether they’re guns, bullets, swords, ships, airplanes, or anything else. If it is mentioned, for instance, that the Sally B is a barkentine, I flag that for myself to make sure it doesn’t later become a brigantine. If the hero is carrying a broadsword, I flag that to make sure it doesn’t later turn into a katana. (And seriously, I edited a book one time where the author had clearly looked up ship in the thesaurus and decided that schooner, galleon, barkentine, and so on could all be used interchangeably. In addition, the ship the author described—the number of sails and masts and decks—didn’t correspond to any type I could verify at all. *sigh* I compare that with, for instance, China Miéville’s The Scar, which was his first work I copyedited. When he started specifying the many ships in Armada, I sighed and said to myself, “He’ll never keep those all straight.” So I dutifully noted them all, and damned if he was never wrong. Not once. I was so impressed! I asked him about this later and found he draws pictures and labels them, actually. :-))

But that’s an aside. Another potential inconsistency one might find comes about when numbers of things are specified: The author states that the hero has eight siblings, but we’re introduced to nine through the course of the book. Or the protag is carrying a six-shooter but fires eight shots over the course of a battle. Or nine missing magical pages are required to read the enchanted tome, but the discoveries of only seven are detailed. All such items—every shot, sibling, page—gets a flag, as does the original reference.

Directions are another problem area. I create a rough map of the world as I edit the book, and I note which way each group is said to go. If the book takes place in the real world, I verify the distances and location of each place if travel in the novel warrants it. When the protagonist travels east for five days, I note that occurrence so I can find it easily later and make sure it doesn’t take him three days’ travel south to get back to where he started—or that he isn’t horseback riding where an ocean was mentioned in Chapter 2.

Physical descriptions of characters, items, and animals are yet another potential inconsistency, particularly if multiple authors are involved. Even with a single author, though, items such as eye color or the shade of a horse are very likely to end up changed over the course of the book.

Are you getting the impression I’m rather anal about my work? Well, yeah, it comes with the job description. I tend to end up with a lot of queries for both myself and the author.

At long last, though, at the end of all this, I’ve finished my first pass through the project. At this point, to be quite honest, I’m not particularly fond of even the very best manuscripts that cross my desk. However, I then get to embark on the second read, which is much more enjoyable. :-)

It isn’t until the second read that I really get a feel for the book as a story. I’ve done all the starting and stopping and painstaking note-taking, and I can enjoy the book as a whole. It is at this point that I find most plot inconsistencies, since I’ve been through the book once already, and it is during this read that I’m able to pinpoint sections that might not accomplish what the author intended. I check my editing, finish applying whatever styles I hadn’t completely decided on during my first pass, and then, when I’ve made whatever queries are appropriate, I go back through the manuscript to look specifically at the flags I’ve made for myself and correlate them with each other. If necessary, I go back through the manuscript again to check them.

So…that’s the process, for any who are curious. I’ve given short shrift to my second read and could delve more deeply into any number of items, but this post has gotten long enough. Perhaps another time.

108 thoughts on “The Copyediting Process”

  1. Dude, that sounds like my kind of fun. Well, not the note-taking. I’d prefer to keep it in my head. But I suppose ALL those things would get a little much and certainly require note-taking. Especially after the first gazillion projects.


  2. I’ve always considered myself anal but you, my friend, wear the crown. :) Very interesting. Sounds like you’re excellent at what you do. That’s why they pay you the big bucks, right?

  3. d b) it’s useful for designers to know the lengths of the longest and shortest chapter titles when they’re deciding on fonts and sizes.

    –>I have never had a copyeditor do this for me. ::weep::

    ::burns extra-good incense at the altar of Deanna::

  4. I asked him about this later and found he draws pictures and labels them, actually. :-))

    Heeee! I drew little profiles of all the ships in my current novel, and I have a tiny model ship on a piece of paper with a simple chart drawn on it to represent wind directions. I turn the ship as necessary to remind myself where it is at the current narrative moment…

  5. I am so happy that SOMEONE pays attention to all these important details! Every thing you do keeps people from getting thrown out of the story, and that’s what it’s all about for me.

  6. Wow, what a lot of checking! Do you ever ask authors if they have character sheets, maps, etc to send that would help?

    When I was writing the first draft of Mysterious Paris, I had several scenes where Manon wandered around her NY apartment. So that I wouldn’t make the sort of mistakes you mention, I found a condo floor plan that was appropriate, and added it to my planning notebook. I’ve cut back that part so she’s only in the bedroom, but at least I drew in all the furniture.

  7. I am reminded of a story Tom McCormick, former CEO of St. Martin’s Press, tells in his book on being an editor. Back in the day, maybe the 1940s, he was assigned a MS. by James T. Farrell to edit. This was well after Farrell became famous with the Studs Lonigan novels, but apparently McCormick didn’t know who he was. McCormick went over the whole thing and did massive rewriting, reordering, etc., and basically ripped the MS. a new one. Then someone clued him in who he was working on. He got serious doubts about what he’d done, but it was already handed in. Then he found he would have to hand deliver his edit to Farrell. He walked in trembling, and the author, no doubt smoking heavily and sipping Scotch, looked over the MS. page by page, without saying a word. McCormick grew more fearful by the minute.

    Finally Farrell put the MS. down, and said indifferently, “You’re good, kid.”

    And that was that.

    I don’t know why I thought of that just now :-)

  8. This is totally fascinating. Thanks, Deanna. It’s a real window to get a chance to see what a good copyeditor is thinking, and how they make their strategy.

  9. Yeah, the problem with keeping it in your head is that it’s not good enough (in my opinion) to tell the author, “You had this as X somewhere earlier.” You need to tell them where that was (and verify it for yourself), and the flags save you trouble that way.

  10. Heh. Yeah, copyeditors are rolling in dough. ;-P Still, I won’t work for peanuts, so some publishers won’t hire me, or will hire me only when I’m requested by name.

  11. My maps and notes are definitely not worth sharing: scribbles on Post-its, for the most part.

    I do think it would be helpful if all authors got a copy of the style sheet, though, and some publishers don’t provide it. I don’t know why. :-/

  12. Do you ever ask authors if they have character sheets, maps, etc to send that would help?

    I have before. Usually I go with what I’m provided, though.

  13. Yes; I often wonder what it says about me that I am not only a good copy editor but also enjoy the work. “Detail-oriented” is probably the most polite term for such a personality. :-)

  14. My copy-editing process is just about identical to yours. I’m surprised, though, by how many copy editors don’t seem to work this way. For my kids’ books, my editor and I went through half a dozen copy editors until we finally found one that satisfied. Not surprisingly, I guess, she was someone we’d both worked with before when all of us were in-house editorial staff at the same company.

    The bulk of what I copy edit is children’s nonfiction with lots of design elements, for a publisher who also requires copy editors to supply the Quark tags for design. (The editor I usually work with also likes me to make small marginal notes for the sources on which I base my changes, e.g., CMS, Web11, WIT.) I often have to check maps and captions, and sometimes provide pull quotes, too. When I get a straight novel to copy edit, it is such a relaxing treat!

  15. Wow! No wonder it takes a long time. Now I get why I’m enjoying Perdido Street Station so much. I am a reader who notices inconsistencies in a story and they distract and annoy me. Boy, could this book ever have them!
    BTW, do you know China M. personally? Just curious. . .

  16. Well, I’m impressed! I used to do a lot of similar stuff, back when I was an editor of “scholarly books” as we officially called them. Actually, they were recycled dissertations and surprisingly rife with factual inconsistencies. I was particularly interested in your design comments, though, because that’s something we didn’t really get to do. Our “design” was cheap, prosaic, and handed down from on high, so all we did was mark the chapter headings and so forth. So, to me, that’s an extra notch up in the scale of copy editing expertise!

  17. Yeah, I used to edit college textbooks: four-color text; huge art, realia, and photo logs; dozens of design elements.

    Keymarking novels is a breeze when you’re used to that. :-)

    (And yes, I also like to provide notes for my changes; I’ll put in the page number for WIT and CMS as well.)

  18. I didn’t copyedit PSS. Of China’s books, I’ve copyedited The Scar, Iron Council, and Looking for Jake. China is very careful with the worldbuilding in his books, which is probably what you’re noticing.

    Since I attend the SF/F conventions, I know quite a few of my authors. China’s one, as is below you, and .

  19. I edited college textbooks a decade ago, and those had such complex designs that no novel could ever be intimidating to me in that regard. :-) Keymarking is really not a big deal in fiction, but I wanted to go into it because I know some authors are perplexed as to what the symbols mean.

  20. I don’t think I’ve heard that term before, but it certainly fits. I don’t read a lot of scifi/fantasy, but he could change my mind. I definitely plan to read some of the others, then I will get a look at your copyediting. Knowing you, it’s perfect. *grin*
    Have to admit, I wondered if you knew him, in part, because of the picture in the back of the book. Ummmm . . .

  21. (And yes, I also like to provide notes for my changes; I’ll
    put in the
    page number for WIT and CMS as well.)

    Right; I also include page #s for WIT, and chapter and section #s for CMS. One editor I occasionally work for doesn’t like me to do this (she wants nothing at all in the margins except the briefest of queries). I have to say, though, that as an author, I really appreciate it when copy editors provide these kinds of citations (that way I know they’re not just being arbitrary!). I also want them to mark all the end-of-line hyphens, put stet marks under all the compounds (so that I know that they’ve been checked), and basically tend to all the little details I do when I’m copy editing but not when I’m writing. And I want to see that style sheet.

  22. I reserve stet marks for items on which I’m intentionally going against CMS or Web11–to tell the proofreader to leave them alone. Since checking the compounds is part of my job, I assume the author knows I’ve done it.

  23. I’ve had enough copy editors who clearly haven’t checked the compounds (and so I’ve had to do it myself while reviewing the copy editing) that now I’m paranoid! On the other had, the CE who’s done my last couple books is so good that I suppose I could finally let myself relax about this. :-)

    I’ll use stet marks the way you do, too, usually with a little marginal notation explaining why I’m not following CMS or Web11, e.g., “au. pref.”

  24. De-lurking…

    Wow! As an author whose first novel JUST went into copyediting, this was a timely and extremely helpful post! I can only hope that the copyeditor assigned to my book is as conscientious, thorough, and anal-retentive…and, of course, hope as well that I did my job well enough that such attention to detail is not painful!


  25. :-) I’m sure you did fine. By the time I’m done with the books, I usually like them pretty well. It’s just that first pass that’s not much fun.

    Who’s publishing your book?

  26. Ooh, is it possible to request you by name? I think I’m going to want you or someone like you ifandwhen someone wants to publish my novel. Novels. Whatever.

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