The Copyeditor – what they doBy
When we buy – or commission – a book from an author, there’s still a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes before you get to pick it up at your local indie or chain store – or download it from your favourite online retailer.
The book is assigned an editor, and the editor works with the author to make the book everything the author intended it to be. That’s a very vague statement, so we’ll come back to this in a future blog.
Once the author and editor are happy that the book is ready, it is then sent to a copyeditor. After a book has been copyedited, we then send it to a number of proofreaders, who check the typeset manuscript for typos, unusual punctuation, etc. But what does a copyeditor actually do? They’re an essential part of the editorial process, but they’re often overlooked.
I asked one of our copyeditors – the incomparable Anne Zanoni – to tell you a little about what she does…
When I’m copyediting, I do a lot of research. I check facts – what sort of fuel was used in airships, where helium was found, how commonly ships like the Hindenburg exploded. How much a horse weighs and whether a character can do things with a mount of that same weight but a different build. Whether certain actual buildings in a real city are really there or that height. Does this climate have this plant? Did this plant grow in that season?
Maybe that wouldn’t trouble most of your readers. If I notice it, someone else will. Very possibly someone like me.
Something that I’ve noticed when I’m copyediting is that I become very literal-minded. Seeing the humor in the writing, for example, doesn’t keep me from querying things.
(I tend to mark certain queries on manuscripts with one word of shorthand – physics – because I know exactly what I mean by that, it doesn’t matter if it’s actually biology or another category. “Science” would mean something else.)
I do consistency problems too. A character’s name changing, or three guys named Dan, or the sheriff becoming the deputy sheriff [and switching back and forth between those titles]. Eyes changing color… Point of view shifting from the POV character into other people’s POVs. Any consistency problem. Maybe a word’s been spelled two different ways and they both happen to be completely fine per the dictionary; but it’s not for me to decide which one the author meant. That’s not the same as when a character is Mara 203 times and Mary 306, however. And that’s unlike when different characters have very similar names.
Speech tags (or lack thereof, which is the regular problem): I’m doing a little blog series on those, so more will come on that. Being able to identify characters in dialog, action, narrative – or when it’s unclear, like when pronoun confusion crops up.
Typically, any book I work on gets its own additional document which is a list of consistency problems, character names, geography questions, and so on. It’s also easier to have for cross-checking certain queries.
I have some practical experiences that are helpful with fantasy in particular. I’ve been in the Society for Creative Anachronism for decades, so I’ve some familiarity with medieval/Renaissance garb. That’s where I did sword fighting with rapiers – not the same as Olympic fencing at all. Back in my teens, I discovered D&D, so I learned a bit about weapons and armor then, and their terminology. Which leads right back to SCA, actually.
This isn’t everything I do. I fix style questions. I ask my editor about format and style queries, about pronouns changing for creatures, about anything that looks like a global query. I look up usage for punctuation and grammar.
For a novel, I can typically spend one whole workday just checking the words, their spellings and their meanings.
Still, I research a great deal. Years ago, I was advised to fact-check and look up everything, and I do so assiduously. Quotes, titles, names – they all want checking too. We all edit what we hear and see and know, all the time.
Whatever I work on tends to have loads of queries.
Copyediting isn’t like correcting a term paper. Some things just haven’t got right or wrong answers. Sure, sometimes spelling, grammar, and punctuation do have right or wrong answers. But not in all cases. I have reference books, style guides, grammar books, lots of reference material. It can’t always help me. So I query.
It doesn’t stop me from looking for the answer. That’s the biggest part of my job: Trying to find the answer. Looking things up. Doing my level best to help.
Because that’s what I do. I help the writer, the editor, and the reader. That’s why I’m here.