The debut author's guide to copyedit reviews

If you think writing a book is hard, try reviewing the copyedits.

An innocent-looking package arrived by courier at my home 2 weeks ago. I instantly tore it open to reveal:


The copyedits for my first book! Yay!

But there was a minor problem. When this thing arrived, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Clearly I had to check the copyedits, but what were all those funny marks in green pencil?

Now I know, thanks to lots of help from my friends, and guidance from my ever-supportive agent. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only debut author to have no idea what to do with a copyedit, so herewith is Gary's Guide To Reading A Copyedit.

Here's the first page of my ms:


I'm afraid it's a bit unclear in blogger. You might need to click on it for the details. You'll notice by the way the working title is still in the top left corner. The real title is The Pericles Commission, and it's fixed on the title page.

Everyone who touches the ms uses a different color pencil. Copyeditor used green, so I picked blue. Copyeditor also used red for various instructions to the printer. The CN means Chapter Number, as in, it would be nice to have one here. The 1-13 is the page number, since there is stuff which comes before. Copyeditor has meticulously counted out the starting pages. Earlier sections have FHM which mean Front Header Matter - stuff which comes before the actual story.

But you, Bedazzled Author, can ignore everything in red. It's the stuff in green that matters. Notice the arcs joining face down. That means make it a single word. The arrow coming up underneath left means put a comma there. Have a look at CHAPTER ONE. The triple line under the leading letters means make them caps. The up-and-across lines over the rest of each word means make them lowercase.

Notice the word knelt. There's a tiny but discernible strike through the lt. The strike means what you think it means. The arc followed by eled means join the surviving kne to eled to form kneeled.

Now for the most important lesson in copyedit review that you, Dear Author, need to know. Allow me to introduce you to the word STET.

When I saw this abomination called kneeled I did what any right-thinking author would do: I whinged to my agent. Janet managed to stay calm in the face of my unutterably black ignorance, and told me of the magic word STET. The magic word undoes whatever the copyeditor had done. So my blue magic nullified the green magic, leaving behind only the original text.

There are piles of these interesting green marks. Here's another example:


The lines in the ellipsis mean make the dots evenly spaced. There are zillions of marks like that throughout and they're for the printers, not me. The underline beneath him means make it italics. Using italics in the text isn't sufficient, so again, Copyeditor has laboriously placed printer instructions all over the place.

The question in the box is interesting. Copyeditor wants to change the text, ever so slightly. The =b means print a dash and a small b instead of the B. Apparently the Chicago Manual of Style, which I have never read, calls for it here. But since this changes the text, Copyeditor asks nicely if this is okay with me.

Here's a final one with some lovely exotic marks. The 1 m combination means this is an em-dash. The upper arc means the whole string of characters is joined together. Note Copyeditor spotted the endquote was the wrong way round. OMG. What attention to detail!

The weird symbol through the dash on the second line means delete. The under-arc closes up, and the triple underline means capitalize. All according to the style manual.

There're piles more of this, but you get the idea.

Once I knew about STET, I began to do something stupid: I over-stetted. It took me a while to realize Copyeditor is right far more often than I am. Which is why when I sent back the ms there were lots of faint blue STETs which I'd rubbed out.

I think the basic rule is, Copyeditor is always right about formatting, almost always right about spelling, usually right about usage, and almost never right about word substitution.

A few times Copyeditor wanted to change a phrase. Usually the substitute suggestion damaged the prose rhythm. But equally, in each case Copyeditor had clearly found a phrase that wasn't working. In just about every case I crossed out Copyeditor's text, crossed out my own text, and wrote something else.

The page you see on top in the first picture is the style guide. This is the set of rules for formatting, grammar etc. Copyeditor has applied these rules across the entire ms.

The style guide rules are followed by any unusual words and a complete list of characters. There are 3 pages of style guide. In the top picture you see the rules and the beginning of the unusual words. (I blurred a few terms to avoid spoilers.)

There are 55 characters in my book. I know because Copyeditor counted every one. And listed the page on which each first appears. And listed every variant by which each character is known. Copyeditor found minor characters I'd forgotten even existed. When I went through the list I twice read names that caused me to say, "Who in Hades is that?" Then I turned to the page listed for first appearance and said, "Oh yes! I'd forgotten all about him!" (It may be a bad sign I can't remember characters in my own book, but believe me, when you're writing the third, cameo appearances in the first evaporate from the brain cells.)

I am simply amazed at what Copyeditor did for me.

Copyeditor has read every single word, every single punctuation mark, every single reference, and has made sure everything is right.

Copyeditor has saved me from some embarrassing errors:
  • At some point I must have used global replace to turn every "armour" into "amour". I obviously meant to turn armour from its UK spelling to the US spelling armor. Thank you Copyeditor for saving me from looking like a complete idiot.
  • There are 8 places where I totally failed to type a necessary word! As in, the word just wasn't there. OMG. Copyeditor saved me.
  • I wrote "ordnances" where it should have been "ordinances". I'm amazed Copyeditor spotted that one!
I could go on, but you get the idea.

The mechanics of reviewing a copyedit turn out to be simple, even if some of the decisions can be tricky, and it's sort of fun in a bizarre, perverse, masochistic kind of way. While I wouldn't recommend copyedits as a good way to relax, there's no question the copyeditor turns your book into a better book.

There is no way I could possibly have got through the copyedit review without lots of help from my good friends on twitter. The moment I saw the funny marks I was asking questions, and where my North American friends were particularly useful was in helping me with American usage. The nuances are quite amazing when you get into it. I want to save that for another post though, 'cause this one is already way too long, but I do want to say a massively huge THANK YOU to all the kind people who got me through this!

And there's another thank you to be made. I don't know who Copyeditor is, by the way. Editor Kathleen intermediates. I've asked to send on a thank you note because Copyeditor did an excellent job. If by any chance Copyeditor is reading this, thank you so much!


39 comments:

Tara said...

Wow, it's nearly impossible to imagine that someone could spot all of that stuff. I don't envy the job.

I cringed to see the word further changed to farther--it's the only similar word choice issue that boggles me. I typically go with further. Of course, now I'm wondering if that's a case of the copyeditor being wrong, or if there really is a big difference.

This was such an interesting post, something that's rarely talked about, let alone shown, in such detail. Thanks.

Amalia T. said...

Awesome post!!
I hope someday to benefit from it in practice as well as theory.

Congratulations on making it through a great copy-edit process, and thanks for taking the time to show us what we can expect when/if we get to this point too!

Matthew Delman said...

I've spent the past few years working as a copyeditor myself, and let me tell you ... the people in that job don't get nearly the amount of praise they need.

I also think it's fun copyediting people's work. But then I'm weird.

There are a few resources that list different proofreader's marks if you want me to email some of them to you. Everything I edit on paper gets these marks put all over them, by the way. Confused the hell out of my crit group (who'd never seen them before).

Valerie Geary said...

What a great post Gary!! Thanks for the insight! :D

L. T. Host said...

How cool! Thanks for the insight into how all this works :)

Carrie said...

Great informative blog post Gary. If it weren't for you going ahead as Guinea pig, we might go in foolish and unafraid. We must fear the COPYEDIT. Ha!

Susan at Stony River said...

I love that Basic Rule! This is a great post, and I laughed out loud at the armour/amour: what a pair to confuse, oh boy.

Long ago I was a proofreader, so my poor kids grew up with the word 'stet'. It was my version of "objection overruled" whenever they tried to get out of doing something -- when I said "Stet" it meant my previous order still stood!

Congratulations on having the book one step closer to the shelf!

Bill Kirton said...

(I love the idea of Susan barking our 'Stet' to her kids.)
Yes, Gary, proof-reading's exciting and absorbing but it does demand true focus. In the book on writing which I co-wrote with friend and colleague Kathleen McMillan, we pointed out the importance of meticulous proof-reading. The book itself was then proofed by her, me and three editors at the publishers. When I sent my brother a printed copy, he wrote to say he liked it but had I noticed the two typos on pages ... (etc.) One of the typos was the insertion of a 'not' which changed the meaning of the sentence entirely. So take care my friend.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Wow. I'm feeling overwhelmed from just reading your post - I can imagine how you must have felt! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. :-)

Loretta Ross said...

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing! I'd wondered where you disappeared to (I never Twitter anymore), but I figured it was something like this.

And now I'm looking forward to your book even more! The glimpses of story you've shown us here look great. ;)

CKHB said...

This is great! Even for those of us who know about STET, this is a very useful insight into the novel-specific process of editing.

A very important concept: just because someone is unable to FIX a problem doesn't mean that they haven't correctly IDENTIFIED a problem.

Welshcake said...

Fascinating post and a great insight into how the publishing process works. More, please!

Anthony said...

This post was so good, it made me ovulate.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Tara. Apparently in US usage there are rules for further and farther. I'd tell you what they are, except I'm not sure I get the difference. Farther I think is always for distance.

I had to be sensitive when checking the copyedit for US usage. It's not my native dialect. Hence I'm so lucky to have friends to help out.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Amalia, Valerie, L.T., Shannon, Carrie, Justine & Anthony!

Glad you liked it. I'm trying to document something of the feel of going through this process for the first time. 10 years from now I'll look back on all these posts and think, "Gary, you were such a dork..."

Gary Corby said...

Hey Matt,

I have to admire anyone who can do this day after day.

You're right I should have included some links to copyedit symbols. I have a couple, but do if you like send me your faves and I'll include.

Peter Cooper said...

fantastic post! and just reading that first page (even without the edits) made me want to rush out and buy the book :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie,

I had a mild panic when I saw the funny marks, but having gone through it once, I'm totally confident about the next time I have to do this.

One thing I should have mentioned is, once you get to this stage, the book's on a production line which cannot be stopped. So there's a fixed but theoretically ample time to review the copyedits. Ample once you know what you're doing, that is.

Also, having gone through this once and seen what Copyeditor dislikes, the next ms will be *much* more to his/her liking.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, yes, if I go silent on the blog it's for one of a few reasons. I'm normally good - and ruthless - about prioritising.

So if I go silent here it's usually because either family or writing is claiming 100% of my time. It's not good blogging practice to sometimes go silent, I know, but that's just how life is.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Peter. I *had* to use the front page for the sample, or at least the first scene because, by definition, anything else could be a spoiler.

Susan Quinn said...

What's amazing is my 5th grader (not me) would actually recognize many of these edit marks - they teach them in class!

Thanks for the once again very insightful post.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, that's an interesting school. My daughters aren't learning that (or if they are, they didn't mention it to Daddy when he was puzzling out the symbols...)

Susan Quinn said...

I was impressed, too. They were teaching the kids how to go through and edit "incorrect" sentences. The teachers do rock at my kids school - that's why we're there!

Also - I just recently used my new mad Word search skillz, courtesy of your post before. I was searching for not-split infinitives:

to [a-z,A-z]@ [a-z,A-z]@ly

{to verb adverbly}

Mostly because I like to split them. Just a crazy rule breaker that way.

So, thank you for that as well!

Gary Corby said...

You're most welcome Susan. It's great to know this stuff has helped someone.

Geoff Carter said...

Fine post, editing is a very special skill.
Just when you have done all the hard work, and managed to write the stuff, you find out it's unprintable.
It's a dyslexics nightmare, must be a bit like waiting for your school work to come back covered in red ink.

Just giving us page 1 is a bit of tease Gary!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Geoff, I've often thought the articles on your excellent blog must be enormously hard to format.

Yes, I'm cruel like that, giving only the first page. In fact, this is logical proof that I am cruel. For consider this argument by induction:

Assume it is cruel of me to provide only the first page, because it's a tease.

Then I should provide the second page as well.

But then the 2nd page becomes a tease.

Therefore I am cruel yet again.

Therefore I should provide the third page...

By induction it follows I can only be not cruel by providing every page, which, let me assure you, is impossible.

Therefore I am cruel. QED

RWMG said...

Great post, Gary.

It is one of my missions in life to introduce STET and sic into Indonesian. I have to check Indonesians' written English and their translations from English to Bahasa Indonesia (not that my Bahasa Indonesia is wonderful but I can at least recognise when they've totally misunderstood the English), so STET and sic come in very handy.

BTW did you notice that whoever produced the style sheet misspelt 'abrupt'?

Gary Corby said...

I did notice the abrubt, but since it isn't in the word list it doesn't matter. The chorego in the list underneath should have been choregos, so it got corrected with the blue pen. But that's why we have the review: to spot such things.

Character names for the printer are taken from the style guide list, not the actual text of the book, so getting the names right in the list is very important.

Geoff Carter said...

So why has this bloke fallen? I just don’t get it ! – how about the last page next time?

Since I made a pact with Google I can’t tell you how I format my blog, but putting 5000 words and 25 pictures in one post is a black art, for which I have had to exchange an undisclosed percentage of my soul.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Geoff,

He had help falling.

I know what you mean about pacts. There's something in my contract with St Martin's about assigning my spiritual rights to their foreign sales department.

Geoff Carter said...

Aha dangerous stuff gravity. .

RWMG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RWMG said...

Gary! I thought it was suicide. Does this mean I don't need to buy the book?

Gary Corby said...

I guess you could wait for the movie.

Suicide is relatively unlikely unless you can think of a way for someone to shoot themselves through the heart with a bow and arrow. Which would be sort of cool.

Geoff Carter said...

Suicide with a bow and arrow is an interesting idea, should be looked in more detail, did this guy have well developed legs with agile feet?.

RWMG said...

Get a statue with its arms in the right position to hold a bow and arrow horizontally, and put a real stretched bow and arrow there. Stand in front of the bow and arrow holding a piece of string attached to an axe suspended above the bowstring, and when you're ready, pull. A hundred cartoons say the principle is sound and it will work.

Gary Corby said...

Ingenious. Clearly you guys should be writing these things, not me!

brianjayjones said...

Late to the game on reading this entry, Gary, but that was a lot of fun! Thanks for that.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Brian, yes, I'm sure all the experienced authors would have enjoyed this adventure.

I have to say, the longer time goes on, the more I appreciate how much Copyeditor helped the book.