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What Exactly Do Copyeditors Do? And Why Does It Take So Long?

by Barbara Howard

I can't count the number of times a new acquaintance has learned what I do for a living and said, "Oh, I'd love to do that! I'd be great at it-I see typos in books all the time!"

They're probably right: People who notice typos in books probably would have a knack for copyediting, and they'd be great-with a lot of practice and experience-but even simple editing is way more involved than most people think.

If you want to see what I mean, look at this brief fiction passage with a careful eye. It's roughly the length of two manuscript pages. Pretend you're the copyeditor, and fix what you think needs fixing. If you want to get fancy, use The Chicago Manual of Style and m-w.com as references.

Your goal is to pick up errors in the manuscript and the story-don't worry, for example, about broader stylistic matters, such as whether the scene is dragging on or how it fits into the novel.

Time yourself, and then read on to see how a professional copyeditor might handle the same passage. (It's no fair if you peek!) Some changes, such as fixing obvious typos, are matters of right and wrong; other changes are judgment calls. No two copyeditors will make the same set of changes or suggestions, but the two sets of edits will often be quite similar. In general, the more experienced the editor, the better.


 

Even after living in Fresno, California for 10 years, I hadn't gotten used to the heat that swept into the Valley in late May. I stepped out of my car in the Safeway parking lot, and and my thoughts turned to the Grapes of Wrath, every plant in sight was dry and dead and depressing.

Murphy's Law was alive and well. All I needed was a gallon of milk, but only one check-out line was open.

At the head of the line, an elderly man was arguing about the advertised price of tunafish. Behind him, a young woman was leaning against her shopping cart, ignoring her toddler, who stood there wearing nothing but a diaper and a filty Abercrombie sweatshirt. He grabbed packages of Tic-Tacs from the candy display and shook them like maraccas.

"Mommy... mommy ... mommy ... MOMMY!"

"What, Bobby?" she finally asked, turning slowly towards him, seemingly with great effort.

The woman in front of me, a bleached-blonde middle-ager with the biggest box of toothpicks I'd ever seen, turned around and shot me a look that said "Kids these days..."

"Got enough toothpicks?" I asked her.

"Ha!" she said. "Yeah...my daughter's fourth grade-social studies project. She's supposed to make the Eifel Tower."

"Out of toothpicks?" I asked. I knew who's be building the Eiffel tower out of toothpicks. I resolved right then never to have kids

"Yeah. Took me forever to find these too. Lived here my whole life but never needed to find a giant box of toothpicks before. You'd think Cosco would have a huge box of toothpicks right? No. Nothing. Customer service totally blew me off too."

"The one in Clovis?"

"No, the one on East Shaw, way out by 99." She sighed. "Could this line be any slower? My step-daughter's getting married this weekend. I've got things to do."

I don't know why, but people see me and they launch in, telling me all about their lives, and this lady was no exception. The step-daughter, Starla, was 19 and pregnant. They were having the reception outside-it was really more like a picnic-over at Woodware park, but wouldn't you know, thunderstorms were forecast for Saturday. She'd told the girl the church social hall was a better bet, because you never know about the weather this time of year. Starla's mother had run off to Montana and was no help, so she ("the evil stepmother, right?") was the one stuck making all the plans, and Starla was difficult. Hormonal, you know. Champagne taste on a beer budget.

She sighed again and said she hoped she'd be out of here soon

I said a silent prayer of Thanksgiving when we were finally at the head of the line. My new friend pulled a couple handsfuls of coins from her pockets. "Glad these are only $5 bucks," she said. "I had to dig in the couch cushions."

"5.25" droned the cashier.

"TAX!" hissed my friend, dumping five dollars in change in the cashier's hands. "Just a minute," she said, rummaging in her purse.


 

Okay - be sure to note how long you spent on this before you compare your edits with mine. Here's what I would suggest to this writer. I've broken up the passage into short chunks and written my changes and comments underneath. In real life, I'd typically use Word's Track Changes feature and margin notes for the queries.

Even after living in Fresno, California for 10 years, I hadn't gotten used to the heat that swept into the Valley in late May.

Insert a comma after California (see Chicago 6.47).

Spell out "ten" (Chicago 9.3).

Valley, a popular local name for the San Joaquin Valley, remains capitalized (Chicago 8.51).

I stepped out of my car in the Safeway parking lot, and and my thoughts turned to the Grapes of Wrath, every plant in sight was dry and dead and depressing.

An Internet search reveals that there are no Safeway supermarkets in Fresno, California. You'll find some about three hours away in the Bay Area. The Safeway company operates Vons supermarkets in Fresno. I would inform / query the writer.

The second "and" must be deleted from "and and."

The "the" in the book title needs to be capitalized and italicized: The.

The comma splice after Wrath must be addressed – a semicolon is one way to fix it.

Murphy's Law was alive and well.

Personification doesn't work well, in my opinion, in the context of Murphy's Law. To say that a presumed lifeless and indifferent principle of the universe is "alive and well" doesn't work, even metaphorically. This rather odd phrasing has the potential to distract the reader. This is a judgment call, so I'd query and suggest rewording to something like "in full effect."

All I needed was a gallon of milk, but only one check-out line was open.

Per m-w.com, the spelling in this context is "checkout."

When I read this sentence, I wondered how we moved so quickly from the parking lot to the checkout line. I'd query the writer, suggesting making this transition a bit clearer to avoid confusion. Even a single sentence about grabbing the milk would help a lot.

At the head of the line, an elderly man was arguing about the advertised price of tunafish.

Per m-w.com, the correct spelling here is "tuna fish."

Behind him, a young woman was leaning against her shopping cart, ignoring her toddler, who stood there wearing nothing but a diaper and a filty Abercrombie sweatshirt.

There's a typo here: filthy.

Also, Abercrombie makes children's clothing, but only for larger children – the clothes fit kids 8 years old and up. A toddler would not be wearing an Abercrombie sweatshirt.

He grabbed packages of Tic-Tacs from the candy display and shook them like maraccas.

If you search online at the company's official site, you'll see the company spells the candy "Tic Tacs" without a hyphen (even though the packaging spells it with lowercase letters: tic tacs). It's important to check correct trade names, even if you think you know the correct spelling. For example, after many years, Wal-Mart recently starting calling itself Walmart.

There's also a misspelling in this sentence: maracas.

Finally, I would also query the writer about whether the child could grab the Tic Tacs. In just about any candy display I've ever seen at a supermarket checkout, the Tic Tacs are near the top of the display, out of reach of toddlers. I'd query the writer, suggesting either placing the child higher up (perhaps sitting in the shopping cart) where he'd have easy access to the Tic Tacs, or having the child grab a different kind of candy.

"Mommy... mommy ... mommy ... MOMMY!"

Mommy is used as a name here, so each instance should begin with a capital M, per Chicago 8.39.

The final "MOMMY" is more appropriately italicized than rendered in all caps: Mommy! For Chicago's opinion on the use of italics and capitals for emphasis, see 7.49 and 7.50.

"What, Bobby?" she finally asked, turning slowly towards him, seemingly with great effort.

I can often guess a writer's age by the names he or she chooses for the characters: John and Mary; Bobby and Cathy; Brian and Jennifer; Mason and Kayli. A toddler is unlikely to be named Bobby these days. If the story in set in the present day rather than in the Brady Bunch era, I would query, suggesting a more common name. Of course the best choice also depends on the socio-economic status or other group identity the writer wants to portray. A suburban blue-collar family will usually not choose the same names as a family of urban hipsters—you've got Kyles and Hunters on the one hand, Satchels and Henrys on the other.

Also, "towards" is British usage; in American English, the preferred word is "toward."

The woman in front of me, a bleached-blonde middle-ager with the biggest box of toothpicks I'd ever seen, turned around and shot me a look that said "Kids these days..."

According to m-w.com, middle-ager is the correct spelling, and either bleached-blonde or bleached-blond would be correct here, in the context of speaking of a woman. Since the writer preferred the "blonde" spelling, I would retain it here and make a note on the style sheet for furture consistency.

"Got enough toothpicks?" I asked her.

"Ha!" she said. "Yeah...my daughter's fourth grade-social studies project. She's supposed to make the Eifel Tower."

Hyphenation is sometimes a judgment call, and editors have been known to have spirited "discussions" about hyphens (discussions in which the editors' passion rivals that of medieval Scholastics discussing the number of angels on the head of a pin), but "fourth grade-social studies project" is definitely wonky. I'd edit it to read "fourth-grade social studies project."

There's also a typo here. The correct spelling is "Eiffel."

Finally, the State of California mandates that children spend their fourth-grade year studying California history, and the kids typically make a model of a California mission. It therefore seems highly unlikely that a fourth-grader in Fresno would make the Eiffel Tower in social studies. I'd query the writer, asking whether he or she would like to change "Eiffel Tower" to the name of one of the California missions.

"Out of toothpicks?" I asked. I knew who's be building the Eiffel tower out of toothpicks. I resolved  right then never to have kids

There are a few typos here: "who's" should be "who'd"; "tower" should read "Tower" (per Chicago 8.61, although the same query about the Eiffel Tower applies); and the sentence should end with a period.

"Yeah. Took me forever to find these too. Lived here my whole life and never needed a giant box of toothpicks before. You'd think Cosco would have a huge box of toothpicks right? No. Nothing. Customer service totally blew me off too."

There's a typo here: "Cosco" should read "Costco."

Although punctuating dialogue is tricky, and a copyeditor should change as little

as possible, I'd add a comma between "toothpicks" and "right?"

The lowercase s in "service" should be capitalized, per Chicago 8.73.

Finally, a "middle-ager" who's lived in Central California all her life would not use the expression "blew me off"-someone who grew up in the East or Midwest might use this expression. The Central Californian, however, would probably use the expression "shined me on"-I'd query and suggest this.

"The one in Clovis?"

"No, the one on East Shaw, way out by 99." She sighed. "Could this line be any slower? My step-daughter's getting married this weekend. I've got things to do."

A Google Maps search reveals that there is a Costco in Fresno "out by 99" on West Shaw. There are no Costcos on East Shaw. I'd make this change.

Also, Californians-unlike people from other regions of the United States-add the word "the" when discussing highway names. They talk about "the 99." I'd suggest this to the writer.

Finally, per m-w.com the correct spelling is "stepdaughter."

I don't know why, but people see me and they launch in, telling me all about their lives, and this lady was no exception. The step-daughter, Starla, was 19 and pregnant.

"Starla" is an example of a well-chosen name.

Be sure to spell it "stepdaughter" here, too.

Per Chicago 9.3, spell out "nineteen."

They were having the reception outside-it was really more like a picnic-over at Woodware park, but wouldn't you know, thunderstorms were forecast for Saturday.

An Internet search shows a Woodward Park in Fresno, not a Woodware park. Be sure to capitalize the p, too.

As soon as I read "thunderstorms were forecast for Saturday," I thought, "Well, that's highly unusual," but I read on...

She'd told the girl the church social hall was a better bet, because you never know about the weather this time of year.

In fact, you always know about the weather this time of year. It generally rains in Fresno only between October and April, and the rain is most heavy in the winter months. By late May, you can plan an outdoor event with absolutely no concern for rain, barring a rare and freakish event. I'd query this.

Starla's mother had run off to Montana and was no help, so she ("the evil stepmother, right?") was the one stuck making all the plans, and Starla was difficult. Hormonal, you know. Champagne taste on a beer budget.

I find this passage perfectly easy to read, even if the grammar isn't entirely kosher. The sentence fragments serve the purpose of conveying the woman's chatty tone, and they also convey the cavalier way in which the narrator is listening. At this point the reader gets the sense that the narrator is starting to tune out the woman. I would leave this little section alone.

She sighed again and said she hoped she'd be out of here soon-at this point, I fervently hoped so too. She described her plan for getting her tomatoes planted this week.

Gardeners in other parts of the country might set out tomato plants in late May, but that would be quite late in Central California, where the last frost date is about April 1 and often earlier. Bearing in mind that Fresno is an agricultural center and that this character has lived there all her life, I'd query this.

I said a silent prayer of Thanksgiving when we were finally at the head of the line.

It's "Thanksgiving" for the holiday, but "thanksgiving" in all other contexts.

My new friend pulled a couple handsfuls of coins from her pockets. "Glad these are only $5 bucks," she said. "I had to dig in the couch cushions."

According to m-w.com, both "handfuls" and "handsful" are correct plurals of "handful." "Handsfuls," however, is not. I would choose the primary and most common variant here, "handfuls," and make a note on the style sheet. I'd render "$5" as "five" - and the dollar sign is redundant with "bucks."

"5.25" droned the cashier.

Because these are words that someone spoke, you must spell them out for clarity: "Five twenty-five," with a comma before the close quote. That's the most likely interpretation, anyway (as opposed to "Five point two five,")-if you're unsure, you can certainly query.

"TAX!" hissed my friend, dumping five dollars in change in the cashier's hands. "Just a minute," she said, rummaging in her purse.

As I mentioned above, italics are generally preferred to capitals for emphasis, but it's best to use them sparingly. In this case, you can probably convey the full effect without caps or italics: "Tax!" This is another judgment call.

Also, as of 2011, the sales tax in Fresno was 7.975 percent, meaning that the tax on a five-dollar box of toothpicks would bring the total to $5.40. I would therefore query the writer about whether she wants to change the cashier's comment to "Five-forty."


How did you do? Whether you missed a few items or caught all the same things I did, you probably notice how much more than typos and grammar is involved in editing a short and seemingly straightforward fiction passage. It takes an editor a good bit of time to work on a couple of manuscript pages-and do it right!