Copyedits and Word Files (bleh)

All right. You guys probably remember back quite a while ago when I did the Publication Timeline. Bearing in mind that all publication things flex and change and each writer/editor team has a different experience between them, let’s talk a bit about copyediting, since that’s the thing I just finished dealing with on my latest ms. And I know how you love it when I talk process dirt. 😉

If you aren’t a professional in or knowledgeable aspirant to the publication game, you may not know what a copyeditor is or what they do. The word sounds self-explanatory, but it’s not.

The copyeditor (CE) does not edit copy per se (the actual “editing” as most people think of it, is done by the line editor who is usually the person we mean when an author says “my editor”). The copyeditor checks the nearly-final manuscript for technical, grammatical, continutity, and legal issues and corrects or makes suggestions to the manuscript to repair these. The copyeditor at most publishers is responsible, among other things, for applying (or at least trying to persuade the author to accept) the publisher/imprint’s official style guide (the grammatical and formatting bibles for the publisher or imprint) and maintaining the stylesheet (lists of specific names and words, proper nouns, authorial preferences, internal series info, and other issues specific to that book or series–these can become very long and complicated for a long-running book series.) They also try to keep the publisher and author out of legal hot water by checking on things like trademarked names, use of copyrighted material, representation of public figures, quotes, citations, and other legal points (this is a bigger issue than a lot of people realize and it’s not a fun job at all–it kind of sucks because it means dealing with the publishers legal department whenever there is a question.) This is a job for grammarians of the most sticklerish and precise kind. A good copyeditor is a hair-splitting, obsessive/compulsive fiend. Most writers do not have a personal relationship or even contact with their copyeditor. The copyeditor is the unloved beast in the black box of the editorial process who marks up, slashes, changes, and suggests weird, annoying, technically-correct-but-let’s-ignore-that-for-now stuff all over the place.

Even good, sweet tempered copyeditors are reviled and decried by the writers they work with at some point. I’m very grateful to mine, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point in every copyedit cycle when I don’t find myself swearing, tearing at my hair, and saying very impolite things that are entirely unfair and emotional when I see the same replacement yet again, the same comma issue or “and then” just one more frickin’ time…! Argh!

So. Here is the situation with copyediting as I have recently experienced it and as is becoming the common mode for all publishers. After the writer has completed their revisions to the Opus manuscript as suggested by (or ignored from) their editor and handed it back, the editor looks it over one more time, makes a few more notes, and then the revised ms goes off to the copyeditor for technical slicing and dicing. (This is also when the “delivery and acceptance”, or D&A, check is cut, so this is the writer’s favorite moment in the process until the book is actually in print.)

Now the copyeditor applies the style guide rules like… making your blessed “alright” into “all right,” hacking apart your comma splices and run-ons, stuffing in dropped words and punctuation, scattering serial commas around like confetti, and having the snot-nosed gall to check your foreign spellings and Proper Names and fix them all with a few strokes of the keyboard. They also go around making suggestions about the most ridiculous things, like… “you said this on the previous page, do you really want to say it here, too?” and “you’ve used the word ‘echo’ 4 times in the last 3 sentences, do you want to change some of these?” or even worse (how dare she!) “I have no idea what you mean here. Could you clarify this?” and the final insult “This makes no sense at all; is this a remnant from the revision…?” Sometimes they even reorder or rewrite or–*gasp*–insert a sentence (holy shit: does she not know your prose is perfect, sacrosanct–how dare she?! Who’s the writer here, anyhow? Grrrr!)

Eventually the annotated ms comes back to you with all these suggestions and changes and so on. This is the copyedited manuscript (CEM) and has been rendered to you in a Word file (.doc) with Track Changes and Comments on and showing. Which is to say that as soon as you get your poor baby CEM back from the heartless virtual red pens of the editing group what you, the writer, see is a heaping pile of colored lines either through or under about a quarter of every page with colored “balloons” on the sidelines mockingly telling you just how poorly you made yourself, your story, and your intentions clear. Oh and that your style and grasp of grammar, spelling, formatting, proper nouns, copyright, trademark, geography, history, basic writing technique, and even your own series is total crap. Or that’s how it seems. First you stare. Then you cry. And then you must crawl through the colored editing labyrinth to address every single one of these points–except the ones you have no problem with, like turning your “dumb” quotes into “smart” quotes and rendering three periods into a proper ellipsis, and so on.)

This was bad enough back in the day of hard copy and “little yellow stickies” (don’t pretend you actually call them Post-Its™: No one calls them that in real life–do they?) No more can one just pencil “stet” into the margin or ignore what one does not want to address with a private authorial sniff of the authorial nose. No, now the author has to go and make a change at every point and leave a note responding to every query left by the editor or CE. And it’s all going to go through the hands of the editor and production manager when it returns to the publisher to be set up for print. You are not allowed to Accept/Reject anything because the trail of editorial change must be maintained and responsible parties tracked. You can’t just shine it on and wing it. At best–if the CE really was an incompetent moo–you turn it back around and return it to the editor with a scathing note saying you’re not accepting anything except the ellipses. (If you do this, you will find yourself very much unloved by a lot of people–please think hard before throwing down like that.) And the final cherry on the electronic CEM review cake is that you will be presented with this mess–and if like me you don’t use Word, you’ll have to fake it with a Track Changes compatible program (of which there are two at the present time that I know of)–and return it in 2-7 days.

One of the serious downsides to the all-electronic editorial system is the rush. Everything comes in at the last minute and has to be turned around with incredible speed. Not that big a problem if you have a flexible schedule and work from home (read: full-time novelist), but kind of a pain in the butt if you don’t. I’m lucky and happen to be a full-time novelist, but I know a lot of people who aren’t and wedge their authorial duties and writing time in between family and work obligations, so they end up doing their CEM reviews in marathon sessions over the weekends.  Mine took 4 days plus another day to produce the dedication and acknowledgments and do other paperwork, as well as a couple of days off to nurse a sinus-related migraine headache.  If  I’d been a novelist-in-between-the-rest-of-my-life, I’d have had to do the whole thing Saturday and Sunday, while nursing the headache.  Seriously not fun. (I pity the working writers who have other jobs and families to manage while writing–they get screwed on this stuff.)

This wasn’t, in fact, a difficult CEM this time–much lighter than any previous novel’s CEM of mine in terms of changes and queries and I do actually respect and kind of like my CE. The really annoying part was dealing with the Open Office system to utilize the Track Changes and comments functions so my editor, CE, and the production manager could do their job with minimal slowdown and slop. Why Open Office? Well… I’m on a Mac so Microsoft’s Word is really not an option (have you looked at the price? Not to mention… duh!  I deliberately don’t have a Windows computer.) I’ve looked into a lot of other systems in the past month or so and of all of them, only Open Office (and its Mac-without-X11 clone Neo Office) actually manage Track Changes and Comments. All the other non-Word systems either kill them or mismanage them so that attribution tracking is destroyed. On top of this, the Mac versions of Open Office and Neo Office were still using the system core 2.4 until the end of January. Core 2.4 does not display comments in balloons on the side like Word does–it shows them as tiny yellow flags in the text that you have to hover over to read, or open the “Notes” dialog and click around in. I was already half way through the CEM review when I found out that the Open Office version for Mac had been updated to core 3.0 (“Open Office Aqua”) with proper Comments display, and Track Changes that were fully compatible with Word. I tried to upgrade, but the half-finished file started in 2.4 was rendered without comment attribution when reloaded into Aqua. A big disappointment and ugly as hell. So I finished the whole CEM in 2.4 with considerable frustration which made every little change suggested by my CE a nightmare to find and respond to.

I now have Open Office Aqua installed and will be using it in future, but I don’t particularly like it. It’s a lot like Word–which I haven’t much liked since about 1996. I find Word to be bloated, slow, arrogant, and stupid. I don’t like the fact that a .doc will always be about three times the size of my plain .rtf files (which contain all the information a simple, long text document needs). I don’t like the way it does backups in progress (by snapshotting the whole file) or uses separate layers (sub files effectively) for each page’s editing, tables, graphics, and each person’s comments. It’s wasteful, inefficient, and creates huge files full of redundancy and useless code. It’s also proprietary and that means a company I have no control over has ultimate control of my documents’ usability. I really don’t like that. But at least Open Office is not Word in fact and distances me  from corporate desire for control. I will probably continue to produce my original drafts in another word processor in Rich Text Format and save them as .doc only when I’m ready to ship them to my editor.

So for now, I breathe a sigh of relief and say “thank the gods that’s over.”



About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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2 Responses to Copyedits and Word Files (bleh)

  1. Lance Weber says:

    Wow, I never knew about the whole copyeditor role. I guess I assumed there was only one kind of editor. My background is in technology/software development, and there’s a pretty analogous relationship between developers and QA testers. It took me a long time to learn to disassociate my ego/feelings from my work, so I can definitely empathize.

    I’m a Mac guy too, and there are just some work items that require using windows + office ( + visio in my case) to get along with the Mundanes. I use Parallels with a dedicated WinXP/Office virtual machine for just such occasions, I mostly use it for importing/exporting between “corporate documents” and my personal working environment and try not to do a lot of “real work” there. I highly recommend it as an option and would be happy to discuss further if you want to explore that.

    Also, I’m curious what you use for writing? I started out with Pages, then dumped that for Textmate (because I’m comfortable with it as a hacker), and am now trying Scrivener. Of course, spending time mucking about with tools is a great way to procrastinate actually writing anything 🙂

    One last note – your RSS feed for this post was something bizarre like “IK9,,,,,*”.

  2. I’ve been using Mariner Write–it’s very slim comparatively and I have never felt the need to do a lot of the desktop publishing sorts of things that most word processors offer, so I don’t miss that stuff. A writing friend suggested Nisus or Scrivener to me recently, but while I think they both look very nice, they aren’t an improvement for me and I’d still have to use OO for my copyedits. There’s just no way around it at the moment, since I refuse to give Microsoft back any of the money they paid me while I worked for them. 😉

    I have no idea what’s up with the rss feed. I don’t have any touch on that–it’s an automated mystery to me.

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