Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Death of Copy Editing

I’ve heard about the death of copy editing many times, both from authors and librarians, lamenting the lack of time for copy edits and the multiplicity of errors in books. I can only speak from my own two books, both at Random House, but it is my experience that copy editing is alive and well—distressingly so.

This might not be everyone’s experience. Perhaps it’s just my own manuscripts that go out emblazoned with the words Not Written By An English Major upon their foreheads. My current manuscript has been copy edited by no less than three people (each with her own color of pencil). As I read through it is clear to me that Violet and Indigo do not like each other very much, but Green, obviously the middle child of the group, is there to say, “Come on, girls. Can’t we get along? It’s just a hypen!”

I am left with my highly-embarrassed Scarlet pencil to follow after my much wiser sisters of syntax who have marked no less than a dozen things on every single page of a manuscript that runs longer than 160 pages. It’s nearly 2,000 copy edit marks!

My job for the next week is to think about every single one of those marks and make a decision. Often it’s the fairly easy. “Duh, of course the comma goes there. Why didn’t I notice that ages ago?”

Although to be honest, sometimes it’s more like, “Fine, what ever you say! Who cares if concertmaster is one word or two?”

And I confess that from time to time it’s even, “Seriously? There’s a rule about that? Dang! I should have been paying attention in English.” Lucky for me Violet, Indigo, and Green were paying attention. In fact, they were the honors students, I’m sure of it.

Every now and then I have to say, “Now look, I know your suggestion is technically superior in every way but no kid would say or think this. Ever. Not in any century or any other planet. Sorry.” For reasons I do not begin to understand this is abbreviated STET.

I can see why copy edits get neglected. It’s difficult, often tedious, requires not just technical excellence from the copy editor, but also some artistic sensibility, and is frequently accomplished on a tight deadline.

And so, dear Violet, Indigo and Green, Thank you for your diligence. Thank you for your depth of knowledge in English, and for this project German, French, Russian and (no kidding) Estonian. I am completely dazzled that you found a source for Estonian! Go Violet! Thank you for your probing questions, your willingness to hunt up accurate maps and even do the math on rates of exchange. I’ll never make fun of an English major again! Most of all thank you for respecting my reader enough to help me make Second Fiddle the best book it can be.


  1. Oh, this made me laugh and then almost cry. I recently had something copyedited by a friend and I think I topped your twelve errors per page.
    And here is the really scary thing: I am not just a former English major, I also teach college composition and creative writing. This little fact just goes to show, I guess, all of us our fallible.
    My brain slips readily over into the task of correction when I'm grading or evaluating someone else's work, but I have a very hard time with my own stuff. It can make me feel like a blazing idiot. Please don't tell my students.

  2. Rosanne,
    My experience with copyediting was much the same as yours, but maybe that's because we're with the same house--maybe even had the same copyeditors! I, too, was thankful for their thoroughness.

  3. I've had two totally different experiences with copy editing - one in which it was done poorly and the other which was done expertly. And though the one that was done expertly was more work for me, I'd take that any day.
    B/c when someone finds an error in my book, that's what it comes down to - it's MY book and I"M the one who will look unprofessional.
    It's embarrassing to have errors in your published work.
    So, hooray for copy editors!

  4. I've loved my copy editors too--and I've learned a lot!