Doing Our Best

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.

86 thoughts on “Doing Our Best”

  1. Studies of metacognition consistently demonstrate that the most ignorant people have no idea how ignorant they are.

    Which is really, really, really extra-annoying to the folks who genuinely aren’t ignorant.

  2. Paragraph (or more) of italicized type can be underlined, or you can put a marginal note marking the section and saying “ital” (circle the word “ital”).

    Boldface can be just set boldface–that stands out more than italic and doesn’t happen often, anyway. (The actual CE mark for it is a wavy line underneath.)

    Boldfaced italics: boldface + italic if it’s a head, or boldface + italic + underline if it’s some funky thing in text like you are signalling the voice of a deity.

    If it’s just varying levels of head (common in nonfiction), then as long as you are consistent in differentiating the levels of head, it doesn’t matter what you do, because the designer is going to decide how they look. (For the record, I am a designer. I get annoyed when authors start designing their manuscripts, because what looks good on an 8.5″ x 11″ page of Courier does not always look good on a typeset page.)

  3. The A-number-one way to signal a new chapter is to start a new page, skip about six lines, and type “Chapter 2.”

    That said, I recently worked on a book that had no chapter numbering at all. The correct format for that is to start chapters on a new page, skipping about 10 lines at the top of the page. At the end of the chapter, put a symbol (## is fine).

    But here is the key: on the very first page of the manuscript, put a note. The note can be something like, “Ends of chapters are marked with a ## symbol. New chapters start on a new page with a few lines space at the top.”

    Putting this note alerts everyone that something unusual is going on, and they all straighten up and pay attention.

  4. Is it a fiction manuscript?

    Poetry and songs are going to be single-spaced in the typeset pages–just like the regular text!

    If there aren’t many of them, and you need spaces between stanzas, you can (gasp! Don’t shoot me, Deanna!) probably get away with single-spacing them.

    But it might be better to double-space and put a # between stanzas.

    Deanna, which do you prefer? We on the design/typesetting end prefer to discourage willy-nilly use of the # symbol, since it has a very specific meaning.

  5. As yes, the “Write your own f**king book!” comment I once saw in a margin…

    The saddest part was that while the c/e was probably going overboard, about 75% of the line edits improved the prose (IMO, of course). But the author was incensed, and stetted everything, even some things that were obviously in need of correction.

  6. TNH, Leigh schedules that panel at Lunacon every year for the past three years. I’ve been on it with both Terry McGarry and Rob Stouffer. The official description is along the line of “Things an author can do to keep the production fairies from screwing up their book” but it generally focuses on stuff like manuscript formatting, and advice such as “meet your deadlines” and “learn proofreader’s marks,” with some side-forays into “Honestly, the copyeditor isn’t out to get you.”

  7. I’m sure it’s a very worthy panel, but I don’t want to discuss manuscript submission formats and general author behavior. I want to talk large patterns and heavy tech with other copyeditors.

  8. I hadn’t given Boskone a lot of thought, Teresa, but I’ll look into it. A panel like that sounds incredibly tempting….


  9. Eliani Torres is another copyeditor in the genre. And agent Linn Prentis told me once that she has a copyediting background.

  10. Don’t feel so bad about that. One of my publishers reformats everything into TNR anyway, whereas the others leave all formatted as it arrived. Someone out there agrees with you!

    The readability of a font has most to do with what someone is accustomed to reading—in a sense, what one reads becomes easy to read. Americans have a much harder time looking at sans serif fonts than Europeans do, for instance, because of exposure. Copy editors who began by proofreading for many years may find proof pages in a few book fonts easier to read than a manuscript page in Courier. I, myself, started out in magazines—close narrow columns, small type, serif font—and as a result, the easiest read for me was one lone manuscript one day that arrived in 13 point Garamond. Who knew? (By and large, I like working for the TNR publisher, because the errors pop out at me far more clearly than in Courier—however, I am a copy editor by way of magazine [where even in manuscript form, that pub used Times] and years of book proofing,

  11. books that are never in finished form set in Courier.

    One plus to the “exposure creates ease” for me has been that a typical blind spot for many proofers, looking at display and headline copy or blurbs, was worked right out of me at the mags.

    Copy editors who have been editing Courier for a long time (or who never had to proofread), and in house editors who have done the same will be sharper when they encounter Courier (or replace with whatever their eyes have gotten used to), so Deanna’s advice serves you well, as you’re wisely playing the odds by using that font.

  12. I’m the reverse, I’d rather work on the hard copy because the computer is hard on my eyes. I see the advantage of going back to find something though!

  13. Hi there! I’m an aspiring author who saw your post linked to by , and I wanted to come over and say thank you for spelling this stuff out. I already knew the standards for how to format my manuscripts, but it’s very helpful to have a solid explanation as to why this format is best. So thank you very much! :)

  14. Thanks for this. Excellent post.

    I perform both functions, actually, in that I write my own stuff, and copy edit for others. Copy editting makes me very conscious of keeping my MS clean, and causes me to beat my head against the desk when others don’t. I’ve had pretty good luck in the latter, though.

  15. You’re welcome! I’m glad you found it useful. I’ve always been one of those people who wants to understand the “why” and not just the “how.” :-)

  16. I found you via and . This post is a treasure. Thank you for being so generous with your experience. I hope you don’t mind if I friend you.

  17. Many, many thanks for putting this online. I’m friending you right this very minute (in the presumption you won’t mind). I knew much of this, but now I know WHY.

  18. I’d read that article before–it’s a very good one.

    It can be very difficult for authors to find a copyeditor with whom they’re compatible–one who strengthens their weaknesses without weakening their strengths. Some copyeditors get so caught up in minutiae that they’re unable to see the story as a whole. I always recommend to authors that if they find a copyeditor they really like, they stick with him or her if at all possible.

  19. New reply to years-old post (will it work?). This is great, as an author (academic, not fiction), this is a great post, really good advice and viewpoint.

    But, just to illustrate that there’s a balance of interests and responsibility here, let me relate an ancient story. I was getting the first segment of my thesis published in the major journal of my field. It was thrilling. I had the usual back and forth, more with the editor but with the copyeditor as well, it didn’t help that I had had to define and use two common language terms in a more rigourous manner, but we got through it ok, and I was happy. When I finally send back the last proof (this was the 1980s, no exchange of computer files) I knew what my article would look like, but I still looked forward to the actual physical print, bound journal, which was to come out many months later, of course. This was the first fruits of my work acknowledged in a major vehicle, so of course I was like an enthused kid (well, I was still pretty much a kid anyway). Talk about ‘wrapping up egos.’

    Finally, the journal issue came out. Imagine my chagrin, then, when I discovered that the article was slightly different from the final proof I saw. No, not a footnote – the _title_ of my article was changed! I was dumbfounded. The article had already been cited in other articles and grants with the prevois “incorrect” title. It was not so much the change, but the fact that it was changed without even asking or telling me. In the end, I lodged no complaint and simply ignored it, it was too much of a hassle, and the end result at best would have been an erratum in a later journal, thus a perpetuating the ambiguity about the article’s identity (note, in academics, articles from the same author can have titles differing only by small changes, not a good idea, but done). It might not have been even a big deal (my advisor sniffed at me about it) except it was my first big major publication. Sigh.

    It took me a little while to convince myself that every other copy editor out there wasn’t out to ‘get’ me. I’ll skirt a well worn cliche here: respect and cooperation should go both ways.

    1. Hi, H.E. It’s always nice to get new comments, even if it is to an older post.

      I honestly doubt that what you describe was done by the copyeditor, though–it was far more likely done by an editor.

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