The Evolution of a Book, Pt. 8: Working with Your Copy Editor

(Previous entries in this series: Pts. 123456, and 7.)

Another extremely important relationship that you’ll have as you see your book manuscript through to publication is the one with the copy editor. Much of the previous advice I’ve given about referees and editors applies to copy editors as well, but let me expound on this relationship a bit.

All of the copy editors with whom I’ve worked were thorough and pleasant. In fact, they struck me as eternal optimists, as in “These errors can be fixed, and your book will be great.” I’m not sure how I would handle a surly, pessimistic copy editor, and I pity you if you’ve had one.

At the publishers I’ve worked with, copy editors were freelance hires. Sometime after the submission and review of the manuscript in-house, the editor sends it out to the copy editor, who reviews it for errors of style, formatting, citation, and substance. In history, they work with the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and the press’ style sheet of preference. How they juggle and reconcile the two is beyond me, and I’m usually a detail person.

Once the copy editor is finished, s/he will send you electronic and/or paper copies of the manuscript with his/her edits. The author’s responsibility is to go through the edits, indicate acceptance of changes, explain why changes are not necessary, and answer any questions the copy editor had about the manuscript. It is a tedious process that requires substantial time and concentration. For the AJ bio, I spent the better part of three days on this job, but this was my fourth time with a book manuscript. Plan on spending more time if it’s your first experience.

Copy editors are very reasonable people. If there are edits with which you disagree, and they don’t violate the press’ style sheet, they’ll usually agree to your suggestions. But don’t be unreasonable, and for heaven’s sake, don’t boss them around. Also understand that copy editors have their own editing quirks at times. Sometimes the quirks make things better, sometimes they don’t, but remember that they just read through 300+ pages of your own quirky ideas about commas, hyphens, and complete citations.

Once you’ve made the changes, either on paper or via the word-processing program of the copy editor’s choice, you’ll send the manuscript back to the copy editor, who will ready the manuscript for the press. At that point, any major changes to your manuscript will need to be done, since the next stage, page proofs, only allows minor changes and corrections of egregious errors.

Let me close with one final thought about copy editors. They are the last reader before your book is published. As someone who likely is not an expert in your field, they have an eye for whether the book will be able to reach a broader audience. For that reason, listen carefully to any substantive recommendations that they make about content.

Part 9 is here.

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