Copyediting Isn’t Rocket Science (it’s worse)

So, now Underground is on its way to NYC and London to be logged and go on to Stage the Next–copyediting.

I have enormous respect for good copyeditors–I have a very good one and I’ve worked with several very good ones in my publishing and tech writing past–so I’m always bemused when I hear/see writers complain about them. I usually suspect that they either had a very bad experience with one and hold it against all, or they don’t actually know what a copyeditor does.

I recall an online conversation that went something like this:

Wanna-Writer: Copyeditors are worthless scum. They do nothing useful and only live to ruin my prose.

Me: ‘Scuse me? What do you mean ‘ruin your prose’?

WW: They change it. They change the words and cut things out and put things in and make a mess of my words.

Me: Are you sure that’s the copyeditor doing that? That sounds more like a line edit issue.

WW: No! The copyeditor did it. She ruined my prose. They’re morons and they don’t know how to write but they think they do, so they mess up my stuff!

Me: Ummm… no. Copyediting is a very specialized job. They don’t make calls about artistic issues. They suggest corrections to grammar and punctuation, look at things like word choice and repetition, and check for legal issues such as proper use of trademark names and copyright infringements. They may make suggestions for changing those things, but they don’t just jump in and make sweeping changes. That kind of thing usually happens at the line edit or content edit stage and it’s done by your editor, not the copyeditor.

WW: @#!!$%^&*@!&!! You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s certainly not what copyeditors do when they attack my work!

Me: Well, I suppose you might have had an overly-aggressive copyeditor… but really, I’m pretty sure you’re mis-identifying the culprit.

WW: And you would know this how?

Me: Umm… 13 years in the publishing business? (It’s 16 now, that conversation was a while ago.)

WW: Oh, so this is a dick-measuring contest now is it?

Me: Huh? No…. I’m just saying, you seem to have a misunderstanding about copyeditors and are blaming the wrong person.

WW: (breaks down into much abuse and unpleasantness directed at me)

Me: I really don’t need this. (Leaves conversation and forum for good.)

And that’s just the worst of the stupid conversations I’ve had about copyeditors. Personally, I love mine. She checks a million stupid things I’m often too close to catch–you know: the stuff that you’ve looked at so often you don’t really see it anymore? She saves my ass on every manuscript and makes me look good. She checks my continuity and language choices. She does the first proof read. And she never changes something outright–she marks it up as a suggestion and explains her reasons if the point is obscure. She’s caught a lot of my goofs. I couldn’t get by without her.

I know some writers who have issues with editors and copyeditors–it happens–but I’m reasonably convinced that people like WW have no idea what a copyeditor does and confuse their work with the editor’s. They mistake the suggestions for edicts, they take corrections as personal attacks. They believe their prose is “deathless” and can’t–and shouldn’t–be tinkered with. Trust me on this: every writer needs a copyeditor sometimes and frequently it’s more often than they realize. I’d look like a huge idiot without mine since I simply can’t keep track of every little twitch and tweak of language and law and continuity and backstory as I scramble around through half-a-dozen outlines, two or three complete drafts, rewrites, spot research, inclusions, excisions, editorially requested changes, sudden freaks of imagination that demand instant gratification in the form of massive ripping and re-forming, and so on and so forth until I produce to an acceptable manuscript.

Even my editor–who’s damned good and nearly indefatigable–needs the fresh and specialized eyes of the copyeditor and proofreader to help her get the ms ready for publication. It’s a very long process to birth a book and by the time I’ve done the creation and my editor’s done the midwifery, our heads are reeling and we’re both more than ready to let another group of pros step in and push our baby on to the next stage while we catch our breath. Without the copyeditor we’d both be as punch drunk as Muhammed Ali long before we reached the final bell of publication.

So, no, copyediting is not rocket science, but it’s not story assassination either. It’s hair-splitting, picky, narrow, and technically-minded–all things most writers aren’t by that stage. But it’s entirely necessary and one of the least-considered jobs in the publication process. It takes a special talent and a ton of knowledge to be good at copyediting, to care about the quality of someone else’s book enough to pick nits and tweak technical issues, and never mind that you will probably receive no credit for it beyond the paycheck while people revile you for “ruining their deathless prose.”

Many thanks to Cherilyn who does my copyediting on the Greywalker books and to the wonderful copyeditors in my past (yes, you!) who kept my foot out of my mouth time and again.

This is cross posted to my LiveJournal, “What Fresh Hell…?”


About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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2 Responses to Copyediting Isn’t Rocket Science (it’s worse)

  1. Cliff Burns says:

    I have no trouble with copyediting–it can prevent some embarrassing typos or lapses in syntax. Where I have a problem is with editors who believe themselves to be COLLABORATORS with writers, tampering with prose and style and voice. As a writer I am the sole creator of my work–I’m not interested in artistic feedback from an individual who cut their aesthetic teeth in college creative writing and English classes or, God help us, “gender studies” programs. Michael Korda, the great N.Y. editor, always said that the hardest thing he learned as an editor was to leave writers alone. I wish more editors had that level of maturity and intuitiveness…

  2. I agree for the most part. An editor’s job in fiction is to assist the writer in clarifying their prose and vision so it’s accessible and consistent (and meets criteria). I’ve been a non-fiction editor, which is quite a different kettle of fish. Good editors don’t wrest control of the writing from the writer, but rather nudge gently where the writer may be wandering too far afield for the intended audience. And if your editor insists on sweeping changes that drastically change the story or voice in ways you do not agree are improvements, they are definitely not the right editor for you.

    I happen to have a very good relationship with my editor at Penguin, but I’ve had the sort of nightmare editorial relationship you describe, too. It really is distressing.

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