Queries and Copyediting

I’m thinking about queries today, and the way they end up affecting the finished book. I’m given to understand, from some of the authors who request me and appreciate the habit, that I query more than the typical copyeditor. Some of it is etiquette: if the author has used the same word twice in a particular sentence, I think it’s more polite to let the author choose another word (or decide whether to keep the repetition) rather than choose one for the author. Some of it is because I’m particularly adept at catching plot holes and inconsistencies in description or timeline: again, it is the author’s choice how to fix those. Sometimes I make a query not because it’s my job as a copyeditor to do so, but because I really, truly believe that the problem is serious enough to affect the public’s perception of the book. But regardless of what queries I make, I seldom know how or whether they’re answered because I’ve never read a finished book I’ve copyedited.

The reason I’m thinking about queries is that I was trying to decide today what the most important query I’ve ever made was. I finally settled on one I’d made to a nonfiction title a number of years ago, and I looked up the book on Amazon to see whether the authors had altered anything based on the query. Nope. No change at all. The book was an encyclopedia of sorts detailing the work of more than a hundred artists–both modern and “vintage”–who had succeeded in both of two specific kinds of artistry. (I would be more detailed, but it might give away the book; for the sake of professionalism, I won’t do that.) The best, most prominent modern-day example I could think of for someone who fit both those categories was an African-American whose name everyone would recognize and who was not included at all. I queried the lack extensively and even noted it on the letter I sent back.

But no. I looked at the TOC, and I did a Search Inside the book. The man is still not included, and it is a real pity. If I could describe the categories to you more clearly and tell you the name, you would all be shocked.

But as a freelancer, I don’t get to know what happens to a book after it leaves my hands. Perhaps the authors never got my query. Perhaps there are permissions issues of which I’m unaware. Maybe the authors decided the change was unnecessary or too much work–or perhaps the editor decided that. Maybe the authors just don’t like the guy for some reason, or maybe they don’t consider his art to be “artistic” enough. I have absolutely no way of knowing, though that doesn’t keep it from bugging the hell out of me.

But this ties in with a common misconception I’ve seen: that you can tell what kind of job a copyeditor did by looking at the finished book. Frankly, you can’t–and it isn’t just because of disregarded queries, either. When the queries are answered, for instance, the copyeditor never sees the rewritten text that results. I sent back a book one time with around a thousand queries on it. (And no, that is not at all typical; yes, it truly needed them; and no, don’t ask. The editor was very happy with my work, though.) When the author is rewriting to answer queries, all kinds of errors or inconsistencies can creep in.

And of course the author can always stet anything the copyeditor did, whether it’s right or not, and the author may not understand why the change was made in the first place. (I try to head this off by noting in the margin why I’m changing something, and giving a page number to a reference or to a page elsewhere in the manuscript if necessary.) Then you get past that into the galley or page-proof stage and all the problems I talked about in my proofreading post: text that’s reset instead of being set from the electronic file, text that’s reset because it’s new, and proofreaders who are overworked or who may not actually proofread. The copyeditor queries and the answers (or lack of answers) to them are just the beginning.

For all I know, though–except when I search through a book on Amazon to see if the author paid attention to my “most important query,” or when I see a review that specifically mentions an issue I know I queried or fixed–all the books I copyedit come out perfect on the other end. I know it’s a silly thing to pretend, given everything that can happen at each stage of the process, but I do enjoy thinking it.

9 thoughts on “Queries and Copyediting”

  1. Marvelous post, Deanna. I for one appreciate a look into the world of copyediting. Thanks for letting us be a fly on your wall while still maintaining the privacy of your clients.

  2. I’ve caught a bit of plaigiarism in a few books, but I’ve never checked back to see if anything was done about it. Now I’m wondering! . . .

  3. A thousand queries!! That’s amazing. The more I read your posts, the more impressed I am with how difficult the job is, and what passion you and others bring to it.

    I wish you were *my* copyeditor!

  4. What a nice comment! Thank you!

    Mike and Kathy Gear request me for all their Tor/Forge titles, so I am on the Tor freelancer list. You can always ask. :-)

  5. I have a close and longstanding relationship with one editor, who has me copy editing and proofreading probably about half her list, and often I do end up proofreading books I’ve copy edited (because these are all juvenile series nonfiction, there are actually sensible reasons for this). Well, there was one book about the Roman Republic for which I was hired as copy editor and fact checker, at about the same time that I was working on my own Life in the Roman Empire series–so the topic was something I knew a good bit about (and I’d already had a previous book published on ancient Rome), as the editor knew (hence her wanting me to fact check as well as copy edit), although the author didn’t (or else she just didn’t care). The religion section of this book included several paragraphs on the Mithras cult (although of course one cannot use the word “cult” in this sense in juvenile nonfiction), so I gently pointed out that Mithras worship was most likely introduced to Rome by Pompey at almost the end of the Republic and really didn’t become a major phenomenon for several decades, well into the Empire. Another part of the book was an assemblage of literary selections, and the author had a piece by Martial (*not* a writer of the Republican period), and nothing from Cicero (*the* major writer of the Republican period). So of course that got a tactfully phrased query flag, too. Well, down the line I ended up proofreading this book. Martial was out and Cicero was in, thankfully–but Mithras was still there, too, as were many other anachronisms and inaccuracies that I had flagged. I shouldn’t have taken it personally, but I was upset for days. It was worse than the time I’m been hired to edit and fact-check a book on Renaissance Italy (again, one of my own areas of interest and publication) and the author wrote back saying, “Oh, thanks, but I’m really done with this book and I don’t feel like making any of those changes.” Grrr…. I especially hate this kind of attitude in nonfiction, and especially juvenile nonfiction–that might be the only book about ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy that a kid ever reads, so it ought to be the best possible book with the most accurate (and interesting) information possible. It’s my job, anyway, to make sure that it is; I just don’t understand why some of the authors of these books don’t feel the same….

    Whoa, sorry to go on like this in your comments section! I guess I wanted a sympathetic ear. :-) Anyway, the point I think I was trying to make is that sometimes it’s better (for one’s blood pressure and mental health) not to know what happens to the manuscripts we copy edit. Fortunately, to balance all this, I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing books I’ve worked on get awards and starred reviews and other well-deserved praise, and it’s most satisfying to feel that I’ve contributed in some way to a book’s excellence and success.

  6. I often check the final book to see if my suggestions were taken. These include major glitches uncaught until the proof stage. I was pleased when [very big name author] took my suggestion that no one in Latin America would have the names he used, and why. And I was pleased that I managed to keep [science fiction writer] from embarrassing himself over a glaring factual error. But even in the proofreading stage, you don’t know that the errors you mark, even obvious typos, will get corrected properly. That’s why there’s the second (or more) pass to be “slugged,” to catch missed corrections.

    I think it’s generally a good idea to at least suggest a change, even if the author does it another way. Some houses ask you to do that.

  7. Yeah, other houses want everything on a query.

    I often do suggest changes, but I’m more likely to do so on the query than on the manuscript, unless I think there’s only one clear way to fix the sentence.

    It depends on a lot of factors, though: how well I know the author and editor and so on. Some of them are familiar enough with me that they really prefer for me just to fix everything, and that’s what I do then.

  8. THANK YOU DO MUCH FOR THIS BLOG!!! I have just started to delve into the technical process and professional standards associated with Copyediting & Proofreading. I never thought of it as a career choice until a friend asked me to “edit” her manuscript. Up until now, critically reviewing my own work as well as the works of others was always been something I found myself doing either by request or civic duty. Needless to say, I especially enjoyed your article on queries — Sharing your experiences eased my dismay (a little) when hardly any of my painstaking suggestions were actually applied to the final work. I was a lot closer to the first book I copyedited & proofread because the author was my husband who self-published his book of poetry. He’s a talented and imaginative writer on his own, however I can surely appreciate finding a body of people who understand what goes into polishing an author’s work so that their intended message shines through –without being clouded with grammatical, spelling and other structural issues (like the horrific run-on sentence I just wrote). Anyway, this isn’t a manuscript, just my unstructured rantings and praises :) Anyway, thank you for your professional insights and perspectives. I was sure there was a lot to know, I just didn’t know how to find out! You definitely have a new blog-fan! (Hmmm – the word “Blog” is not in my MS Word dictionary … My how much has changed since 2002!)

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