Several people have requested that I write about what they can do to make the copyeditor’s job easier.
First, I have to say thank you to those people, and to anyone else who’s taking the time to consider that question. Anything an author can do to make the copyeditor’s job easier is likely to result in a better finished product for the author. There are specific steps you can take to ease the process. Rather than just list them in general, such as “Use standard manuscript format” (which I actually see too little of in the manuscripts I copyedit), I’ll explain each item so that you understand why it’s important.
Double space all elements of your manuscript (this includes footnotes, extracts, etc.). The reason for this is twofold. First, your editor and I need the space between the lines in order to make edits. Having to write corrections out to the side is sloppy and increases the chance that the compositor will make errors in setting the correction. Second, production departments look not at the number of words in a manuscript when determining how long the copyeditor should get to work on it, but at the number of pages. If you squeeze a 250,000-word manuscript into 650 pages by using 10-point type and line-and-a-half spacing (and yes, I’ve unfortunately received manuscripts like that before), the production department is going to decide that the copyeditor should be able to copyedit the book in 65 hours (10 pages an hour), whereas they would give us more like 100 hours if it were set properly. They use that figure in determining the schedule, and they use it in making their budgets and in deciding how much we should charge. Does it make sense? Of course not. Does it happen anyway? Absolutely. (And yes, I can call the production editor when this happens, but it doesn’t always work [particularly with the schedule] and it shouldn’t come up in the first place.) Sad to say, I’ve learned the hard way when deciding what projects to accept to ask, “Is it double-spaced?”
Use 12-point type. This is standard. In order to read long hours and still find typos, we need a decent-sized type that won’t strain our eyes. Also, the same notes on length apply as in the previous paragraph.
Use Courier. Courier has a nice amount of space between letters, and it makes typos much easier to see. , who works in production at one of the major publishers, has assured me on multiple occasions that she sees far fewer typos at the page-proof stage when the author has used Courier rather than Times. Do not under any circumstances use a sans serif font, as the letters are too hard to tell apart. And again, the same notes on length apply.
Use the # symbol to indicate a line space. If you simply leave the line blank, we’ll often have to guess or query whether you intended a section break at the end of a page. If you use asterisks, some production departments will require us to mark through them and write “l#” anyway. If you want to have your sections set off with some ornament instead of a blank space (in which case you might want to use asterisks), talk with your editor about it. They’ll let us know if we need to mark for that.
Put the page number in the upper right-hand corner. The copyeditor will need to page back through the manuscript often to find the earlier usages and mentions they’ve noted on the style sheet. We’ll also have to check the pagination before we send it back to production. Having the number in the top corner lets us find the right page quickly. If you center the number at the bottom, we have to move the whole stack of manuscript in order to see the page number. (Putting the page number in the bottom right-hand corner isn’t too bad, but we’ll still have to move the whole stack of paper aside if we have the manuscript in hand instead of on a desk.)
Use underlining instead of italic. There are many production departments that will require the copyeditor to go through your manuscript and underline every bit of italic. One large publisher requires its copyeditors not only to underline all the italic, but also to write “ital” (circled) out in the margin every single time italic occurs. This, frankly, is unnecessary. In my fifteen years of publishing, I have never once seen an instance in which a comp failed to set italics throughout an entire manuscript just because italics were used instead of underlining. (And yes, they do miss italicizing individual words, but they do that regardless of whether italic or underlining was used.) It should be necessary only to mark for the comp “Set all ital as ital,” and if the comp then fails to do it, the charge for correction should be on them.
However, it is harder to see italics in Courier than it is in Times. Also, copyeditors don’t get to make the rules, and if we tell the production departments their rules are unnecessary, we’re unlikely to get further work from them. Please underline instead of using italics. Believe me, we have many more important things to do to your manuscript than spend our time drawing lines under words.
If you’ve done something unusual in your manuscript that you’d really like left alone (like capitalizing titles in all instances, or using eye dialect in your narrative, or using a plethora of run-on sentences as a stylistic device), please send your editor a note to that effect and ask them to be sure the copyeditor gets it. The primary reason for this is that it gives us the authority to let that text stay as is. Copyeditors are trying very hard to please multiple “bosses”–the production editor, the editor, and the author–and it’s hard to please so many people. Out of those three, though, it is the production editor who actually hires us and is responsible for giving us further work. The production editor may have different ideas about what the book needs than you do or I do or than your editor does–hell, everyone may have a different idea about what the book needs–and if we have what you want in writing, we know that everyone is okay with it; we can then feel free to leave that item alone without having to fret whether we’ll be denied further work because of what someone else might see as a lapse.
And please note that I am not in any way intending to malign production here. They are some of the hardest-working folks in publishing, and if you go onto any production floor late at night, you’ll see many people still slaving away. They’re also, however, some of the shittiest-paid people in publishing, and because of that the turnover rate is incredibly high. Your production editor will work diligently on your book with little or no recognition (how many of you authors even know who your production editor is?), but chances are good that they’re fairly new to publishing, or new to your work, or both. Chances are excellent that I have more experience than the production editor hiring me, but that doesn’t mean that I have the slightest authority to tell the production editor how to do their job. All of us want you to be happy with your final book, and having in writing the things you’d really like left alone just makes it easier for everyone. Your copyeditor does not want to waste everyone’s time by marking things that you are just going to stet.
Those are the primary things you can do before copyediting that will make our job easier. There are several things you can do during or after the copyediting process that are important, too, though.
First, if your editor forwards you a query from the copyeditor, please answer it right away. We only have a short while–sometimes one week or less–in which to work on your manuscript. We really don’t like to have to bother production with queries during copyediting, because a) production is unbelievably overworked as it is, and b) the whole process is a pain in the ass. We have to send a query to production, who forwards it to your editor, who forwards it to you. When you answer, the whole process reverses itself. Copyeditors aren’t going to bother everyone with that kind of query unless they feel they truly need the information in order to make everyone happy with the project. But the copyeditor can’t stop copyediting while waiting for the answer. We have to keep going in order to make our deadline, and it has happened to me before that I never got an answer to some very important questions before I finished the job and had to send it back. The author, then, was stuck with more than a hundred very repetitious queries (because it’s my job to note every instance so that none of them are missed). That sucks for everyone. Please respond quickly to forwarded queries.
The last item I’d like to mention has to do with attitude–yours. I am a copyeditor who takes her job very seriously, who really wants her work to make a difference, and who has her ego very much wrapped up in doing the best job she possibly can. When authors are appreciative of the work I do–when they send me a thank-you note or mention my work kindly on their blog or put me in their acknowledgments–it means an enormous amount to me. They earn my undying (since has figured out my vampiric secret ;-)) gratitude, and I’ll do my utmost to accept their future projects. (I can’t take every copyediting project I’m offered, but those authors are put at the top of my list.)
Also because I take my job so seriously, though, I’m constantly looking to improve it. To that end, I regularly conduct Internet searches on terms like “copyedited,” “copyeditor,” “copy editor,” and “copyediting.”
I’ve read a lot of rants from authors (though none directed specifically at me). Some of them are justified; some aren’t. There are several authors whom I’m quite determined never to copyedit because of their rants. (That’s the very first question I ask when I determine whether or not to accept a project: “Who’s the author?” I suspect I’m not alone in that.) One common factor that I see in most of those complaints goes something like “This copyeditor acts like I’m stupid!” Often the statement is because the copyeditor has “corrected” a deliberate misspelling, or queried some esoteric fact, or asked whether the author really meant to repeat an adjective twice in two sentences. And honestly, if you’re one of the authors who has that attitude, and it crops up repeatedly with your copyeditors, you need to realize that it is a personal issue or insecurity or arrogance of yours. (And yes I’m sure that this is not a popular thing for those authors to hear. Sorry.) But it’s not us. We cannot be in your head to know what you intend, and where one author may deliberately repeat a word, another would be horrified to find they did so. You often see consistent misspellings because the author has done a last-minute search-and-replace for a term and typoed it (hell, I did this on my own novel!); we can’t always assume you meant it that way. I’ve seen authors make horrible factual errors just because they mixed up some notes or used an unreliable source or misremembered something; your copyeditor would be remiss in not querying those, even if it turns out you were bending the truth deliberately. We copyeditors are just trying–believe it or not–to make everyone happy so we can get hired again in the future. If we could assume that everything in a manuscript was there because you intended it to be, then…well, we wouldn’t be assuming anything, because there wouldn’t be a need for copyeditors in the first place.
Your copyeditor honestly wants your book to come out perfect, and for everyone to be happy with the job. We live for that, and it’s damn hard to achieve with so many bosses and such distance between the copyeditor and author. The steps I’ve outlined here, though, if you take them, will help a lot. Thank you again for asking.
I'm a freelance copyeditor specializing in fantasy and science fiction. SF/F novels I have copyedited have been finalists for (and have sometimes won) the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Endeavour, Golden Spur, John W. Campbell Memorial, Quill, Locus, Philip K. Dick, British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. In 2007 I became the first and only copyeditor ever short-listed for a World Fantasy Award.