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. Thanks, this is very helpful.

    “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!);”

    Speaking of last minute typoes, I’ve got a request from the editor to unify terms for shapeshifter disease. So I went through the manuscript and dutifully replaced all Lycos Virus with Lyc-V. And all Lycos-V with Lyc-V. And all LV with Lyc-V.

    The automated search and replace function does not distinguish between capitals. I realized this when I started see siLyc-Ver and invoLyc-Vment. :P I dread the copy edit. I honestly do. My characters say things like “You on it?” in dialogue. :(

  2. This should be required reading for all authors.

    Are there preferred margins for copyediting? What about lines per page?

  3. Thank you. Especially thank you for the “why underline?” answer. I’ve got a grand unpublished novel where I dutifully went back and swapped every italics for underline, before submission, but now I know why.

    And, should I manage to revisit it sometime, I know to double-check where I stuck the page numbers. (I also have the name of the work and my name on each page; I once recall… Marion Zimmer Bradley, I think it was? Mentioning that in her days as an assistant editor, a couple of manuscripts got dropped on the floor together, and sorting them apart again was . . . interesting.)

    Do authors ever hire a copy-editor personally, for preliminary work?

  4. great stuff, If it’s okay, I might save this. Alas, I seem to be an unregenerate offender. I will certainly underline ital from now on, but I still loathe Courier -it’s okay for screenwriting, but it looks kak on the page. Everything is assiduously double-spaced. But I do get back to copy-edit queries as soon as is feasible….

  5. Most of what you mentioned was stuff I learned when researching proper manuscript formating. It’s nice to know I got it right. *g*

  6. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this! It’s fascinating for me to hear about production issues I’d never contemplated – I guess I still fall into the “then something magical happens” school of book production!

  7. Double spacing … good.
    Courier … good.

    But setting aside the neolithic grunts I’ve got to say I’m surprised at how bold Courier looks compared to Courier New, which is what I’ve used for the longest time. Can I assume the “boldness” is one of its selling points?

    Never went the Times route, saw too much of it at the newspapers where I worked. The papers liked it because it was a smaller font, used less paper and got more editorial content per page.

  8. Wow, this is absolutely terrific information! Many, many thanks for the time you spent putting this together. (It was probably a wee bit cathartic, I imagine!)

    Given the “chain of command” you describe that delays questions and answers between copyeditor and author, do you believe that direct communication would be better for all parties? There’s no question that it would be more efficient, but — paradoxically — I can see how it also has the potential to slow things down.

    Thanks again for such an informative essay


  9. That’s very interesting about the location of the page numbering. I recognized everything else as standard (well, except the acknowledgement thing, and that ought to be standard ;) ), but not the page number. Do you prefer an identification mark along with the number (e.g. “Hoak – 1” or “Locke Lamora – 1”), with the idea that if the pages get separated the ms is easily identifiable by a single sheet, or just the number by itself?

  10. Wow. You’ve actually verbalized so much of the work I do that I didn’t even realize myself. (seriously).

    Luckily most of the folks I work with follow these “standards” so I haven’t had to suffer much :)

  11. FWIW, in Word you can specify ‘Find whole words only’ and ‘Match case’ – they’re some of the options that show up when you click the “More” button on the Search & Replace dialog box. If you’re feeling really ambitious, check out the Help for “Find and replace text or other items”, and read the section on “Search by using wildcards”.

  12. I’m also a freelance copyeditor, but most of my work is on “scholarly” (in quotes because, frankly, some more and some less!) titles for university presses. However, I copyedit a few fantasy/SF works for authors who specifically ask for me.

    Since you do so much in this area, you seem to be a good person to answer something I’ve been wondering about: is most fiction still edited in hard copy? All the university presses I do work for have switched to electronic files, copyedited onscreen. I love this: I can work much faster, and it’s trivially easy to go back and find something–gone are the hours spent paging back through to find something “I know I saw.” And my aging hands and wrists find using a split keyboard to be much easier than writing everything by hand! So although I would like to mix it up a little and work on more fiction (three or four philosophy books in a row can do weird things to the brain), I haven’t sought it because all the fiction I do copyedit is still on hard copy.

  13. Here via Sartorias. Excellent guide.

    I work in non-fiction, but even in a field where “creative grammar” is never okay, I cringe at some of the things I hear authors say about their copyeditors. Recently I talked over an upcoming ms. with an author (who has done this before, and should know better), and described the CE process, and he blustered about people who muck up his lovely words, blah blah blah…

    I said, “But the reason they’re there is to fix typoes, grammatical mistakes, [etc.]” and he told me that, while there might be a typo in his precious, I would be hard-pressed to find any grammatical errors in his writing!!

    I am currently line-editing his writing, because the “final” ms. he sent me was so bad that it is not fit for a copyeditor. Sentences that make no sense, incredibly bad word choices, crappy organization, and yes, lots and lots and LOTS of typoes and grammatical mistakes.


  14. Brilliant post! Thank you so much for writing it. And amen to “double-space *everything*”; I can’t tell you how often I get manuscripts with pages and pages of single-spaced back matter (and the authors who do this are the invariably the ones who have not mastered bibliographic formatting).

    The publisher I do most of my work for (both as a writer and a CE) requires the CEs to code the manuscripts for Quark, so the italics/underline issue never comes up (since the designer receives a MS full of s and actually works straight from the computer disk). Consequently, I hadn’t even thought of this with regard to my novel; I’m now off to change all the italics to underlines. Thanks for alerting me!

  15. Thank you very much for this. Courier is preferable to New Times Roman? Somewhere during my frantic manuscript preparations, I read that NTR was the preferred font. I’ve gone into Word and changed that after reading this.

    On underlining for italics, if there’s a paragraph or so of italicized text, is the whole thing underlined, including the breaks between sentences? That probably sounds stupid, but if there’s a way to interpret something sideways, I’ll find it.

    What about boldfaced type? Is there a special way to handle that? Boldfaced italics? (I’m trying to think if there are any other commonish formatting things to ask about, but I don’t think I’ve had enough coffee yet.)

  16. One can also do worse, if one is an author who wants to know a bit more about how to get a foot in, as it were, in the publishing world, than to read Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s weblog, wherein is contained such gems as Slushkiller (which has, in its body, a rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections: “1. Author is functionally illiterate.” to “13. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.” – the rest of the post, and the comment thread, can help give authors a feel for what and how the world of publishing means for their darlings, I mean manuscripts. Said post also spawned “On the getting of agents”, which will probably be helpful for authors aiming to do just that. And the rest of the weblog is brilliant as well.

  17. Oh, crap — so when I turned in my MS single-spaced in 10 point Helvetica on legal-sized paper, I wasn’t really making your job easier the way I thought I was.

  18. I think I’ve asked you this before, but do you like to see an author provide their own style sheet with lists of odd words/usages/explanations? I was asked to provide one for the first book, but after that I didn’t receive anymore requests.

  19. I was going to ask the same thing. I’ve had beta-readers catch a middle of the MS chance in the spelling of a name, so I know I’m capable of such slips. I thought having a sheet with the correct Names and usages might save anything I let fall through.

  20. I’ve been considering trimming my bloated friends list down to a mere handful, but this post more than any I’ve read so far convinces me I’d be an idiot to stop reading your livejournal.

    People like you are gemstones – not only intelligent, wise, and experienced, but willing to share those qualities with all who are willing to learn.



  21. I come from the land of tiny nit-picky details — what do you suggest to denote end of chapter? A # sign again?

    The one finished manuscript I ever perused used astericks for section breaks and the pound symbol for end of chapter. I always assumed that meant that the author did so to indicate a difference between sections and chapters. Advice?

  22. Thank you for this, and for all of your copyediting entries.

    When I first decided to take writing seriously, I was very afraid of being thought an amateur, and read up on the right way to do things, including manuscript formatting. When I went to a couple of critique groups where people paid no attention to formatting, it drove me crazy. I think I learned my lesson too well :-)

  23. Deanna,

    Thanks! This was wonderful! One question, if I may:

    In my manuscript ( in preparation) I’d like the poetry/songs to be single spaced. How would I indicate that? Would a letter to the editor to be forwarded to the copy editor sufice?

  24. *Danny sends Deanna a thank you note for posting this*

    Actually the only thing I don’t always do here is sent out submissions in Courier–but that’s my own forgetfulness. TNR is easier for me to read and as often as not I forget to change the font before mailing something out.

  25. Deanna, another great post. Of course you left out the most important thing: that the author can actually request that the production people use a specific copy editor, such as you! This request won’t always be followed, and the c.e. in question might not be available, so it’s better to give several names, but having someone you know is good is better than taking pot luck.

    I’ve had a number of authors include a note to the c.e. with odd spellings and a note saying something like “The following words are correct.” Or “I refer to this character as Jane when it’s Harold’s point of view, but Janey when it’s from Sarah’s” and things like that. It’s an emormous help.

    And author: Please don’t write “YOU @#$% MORON” (and worse) in the margins of your MS. when you get it back from copyediting. (This didn’t happen to me, but to a production editor I know.) A simple “stet” is sufficient.

  26. Also, I’d lovelovelove to see a post someday about *how* you got into this business and became so successful. (Aside from the “did a really really great job” part. *g*)

  27. Terrific piece, thank you for taking the time.

    Small query, if I may — I understand the note about underlining, but i’m a professional geek, and I suspect there are others out there who have thought of this, in underline italics, do I is set my word processor to underline just each word that I want italicized, or do I underline the spaces between as well?

    Its a little thing, but because most word processors allow you to be specific, I thought I would ask.

    Thank you again for you effort – I posted to OWW as well – I agree with ‘hominysnark’ suggestion, it should be required reading. As one who is attempting to break into this world, I learned a great deal in these few paragraphs.



  28. The dialogue you shouldn’t have to worry about–I can’t imagine a copyeditor would alter that. The LV problem…ugh. Did you not realize till you’d already sent it off? You can’t go back and fix it properly?

  29. Of course you’re welcome to save it. Thank you.

    I agree that Courier is unattractive, and I understand authors wanting to compose in another font. (I do so myself.) It really is far easier to see typos in Courier, though, and certainly the font is never going to cost you a sale (if that’s what you mean about it looking like kak on the page).

  30. Yeah, I’ve read authors who’ve bragged about making all sorts of asinine replies to the copyeditor on the manuscript. I can only imagine that they simply don’t know the copyeditor will never see their replies. They’re making themselves look bad, and they’re wasting their time.

  31. No I caught it :). I’ve made a rule to never send an edit out on the same day I finished it. I also always have at least two copies of the draft, one pre-correction and one post-correction, so I just reverted to an earlier draft.

    But I do have to say that I have a new found respect for copyediting. It took me eight hours yesterday to go through the 90 K manuscript making corrections the editor requested ( most of them minor: insert a comma here, add an em-dash, etc). By the end my eyes glazed over. How do you do it?

  32. This subeditor salutes you from the depths of his heart.

    I’ll be posting a link to this at the office, for sure.

  33. Are you coming to Boskone?

    One of those program items I’ve always wanted to do: a panel on copyediting that for once is actually composed of trade fiction copyeditors. There’d be no grizzled old author with a handful of stories about copyediting traumas, no editors who don’t have a production background, no nice person who works in magazines and doesn’t understand that nonfiction periodical copyediting is so different from trade fiction copyediting that we might as well call it by a different name, and, please ghod, no neopro whose first novel (waves cover flat) is about to be copyedited. For once, we could get into the real issues.

    Eligible parties: you, me, Terry McGarry, Nancy Hanger, Robert Legault, Rob Stouffer, Scraps deSelby, Kat Macdonald. Am I missing anyone? I think that’s the complete list, unless you count copyeditors like Nancy Wiesenfeld who occasionally come to conventions.

    One of the useful things we could talk about: there are reasons why some otherwise civil authors scrawl abusive notes on copyedits. I’d explain now, but it would take a while, and I’m about to leave for work. Inadequate short version: a good copyeditor sees production editors and manuscripts. What you don’t see are the copyedits that drive authors into fits of profanity.

    Want to hear a weird thing? When authors are in that state, they all say the same things, practically on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I don’t know of another force in the universe that can depersonalize their language to that degree.

    We so need to do a real copyediting panel.

  34. Presuming to speak for Deanna…

    Dead minimum of one inch all around. 1.25″ on the left if you can manage it.

    And I don’t think she mentioned: RAGGED RIGHT. Do not full-justify the text.

  35. We call ourselves the “production fairies.”

    But that’s more a comment on how we think Sales and Marketing views us, than authors. :-)

  36. For some authors (and some editors/copyeditors/managing editors), it is best that they have little contact.

    Which is my way of saying not everyone has great social skills. It’s safest to have single rule of thumb: the author deals with the editor, and no one else.

    In a few cases when I’ve had a particularly knotty production issue that would be easiest solved with direct communication, I’ve requested that the editor hook me up with the author. But in 11 years, having worked directly on some 2000+ books, I’ve probably spoken (or emailled) directly with authors on only a handful of occasions.

  37. Again, I can’t speak for Deanna, but my preference is for

    Author Name/ Book Title
    in the upper left corner, and
    page #
    in the upper right.

    I do not object to
    Author Name/Book Title/Page Number
    in the upper right.

    The key thing is that the page number should be upper right, and the author should put his name or the book title somewhere on the page. Upper left is just convenient.

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