The Dreaded Copy Edits

Why You (Probably) Don't Have to Be Afraid

Hi Manuscript Workers,

This post is for those of you who are just wrapping up writing a scholarly book and submitting it to your publisher. Or you might just be a person who is looking forward to the distant or not-so-distant day when you fill find yourself in that position. At some point after you submit your final manuscript and your book goes into production, it will be professionally copy edited. I wanted to write a post on copy editing because it’s a process I think many authors don’t fully understand. This is not authors’ fault. Like many (most?) aspects of academic publishing, it’s not very well explained anywhere, let alone systematically communicated as part of academic training.

When I hear authors talk about being copy edited, it’s usually to complain about a stylistic choice the copy editor has made that the author feels interferes with their own personal style or the intended meaning of their text. I get it, it’s frustrating to put so much time, effort, and thought into writing something and then have someone not understand what we were trying to do and change it. But I think understanding what a copy editor has been tasked to do—they’re a laborer too—and what the industry expectations are for copyeditors might help authors feel a bit less personally attacked by copy editing activities. I’ll break this discussion down into six parts/principles.

  1. Who has the power

Well first, since we’re talking about labor, let’s talk about how academic copy editors are employed and paid. For the most part, scholarly publishers hire copy editors as freelancers. That means they are not employees of the press. They don’t have job security or benefits. They’re probably self-employed, and any formal training they’ve received, they’ve paid for themselves, out of pocket. And the pay rates for academic copy editing aren’t great. It’s similar to adjuncting in that it’s something that people do because they enjoy the material, it allows them to use their intellectual skills, and it may be a steady stream of income, but they could certainly be making more money doing different kinds of copy editing jobs (e.g. working directly for authors, editing business documents, etc.). If your press happens to employ copy editors in house (sometimes at smaller presses the production editor will do the copy editing as part of their job duties), trust me when I say that they’re probably not paid all that well either.

I’m telling you all this because I think it’s important for authors to understand the power dynamics involved when they’re dealing with a copy editor. This is probably not a person who has more power than you in the publishing process. This may in fact be a person who is making financial sacrifices to work on your book, because they thought your subject matter was interesting or they just wanted the chance to work with academic material. They’re not out to get you, and they have little power to materially harm you. (I mean, probably. I can’t fully guarantee there aren’t sociopathic copy editors out there, but I’m quite sure they’re rare.)

  1. Ensuring consistency

The copy editor’s job is to eliminate errors and inconsistencies in the text and to resolve ambiguities or quirks that could interfere with reader comprehension and enjoyment. Publishers use house style guides to ensure that the books they publish all basically follow the same conventions for things like punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation, and so on. Each book will have its own style guide as well, to make sure that the choices made within the book are self-consistent. In most cases, your book’s style guide can depart from the publisher’s house style guide, as long as you’re consistent across the whole book. The point of consistency is so that readers are not distracted or confused when reading your text.

As an author, you’ve been thinking about a ton of things other than making consistent style choices, which is as it should be. The copy editor basically steps in to take that task off your shoulders. If you look at your copy editor as someone who is there to help you and remove a burden from you, rather than someone who is there to correct you and make you feel bad about all the mistakes you made, you’ll hopefully experience working with a copy editor much differently.

  1. Catching things you can’t or don’t know to see

As an outside observer of your text, a copy editor is also able to pick up on idiosyncrasies in your writing that you may miss. For example, the copy editor of my book noticed that I begin a lot of my sentences with “So.” She eliminated those because they weren’t needed and could be distracting (in a couple cases she replaced them with “therefores” to make the causal relationship I was trying to convey more clear). Now, what if I feel strongly that beginning sentences with “so” is part of my personal writing voice and that some of them really should stay in the text? Well, I can say that and change some of them back. In a lot of cases, the copy editor is just trying to point something out and save you some work by fixing it for you, not trying to sadistically control you.

The “so” thing was sort of a silly example, but let’s take something that’s more politically serious to a lot of authors, such as the use of the singular they, or capitalizing the word Black when referring to race, or choosing identity-first language over person-first language (or vice versa). In all these cases, your copy editor should be adhering to the publisher’s house style guide when making changes to your text. If they make a change that bothers you, it’s probably not that they’re personally trying to go up against your political beliefs. If you don’t agree with the publisher’s style guide, remember that your book will have its own style guide too. If there’s a stylistic choice you feel strongly about and it doesn’t match the publisher’s conventions, you can tell your copy editor ahead of time (or ask that they be told, if you aren’t put in direct contact with them).

  1. It might be easier to get your way than you think

There may be cases where a publisher or copy editor really resists you making the stylistic choices you want to make in your text. And when it comes to principled stylistic choices, I think it’s bullshit if a publisher tries to make you say something you don’t want to say and you should 100% fight them on it and make a big stink until you get your way (and maybe not work with that publisher again). But first try just making your case politely that the way you’ve written it is the way it needs to remain when published. It may be that no one will put up even the slightest fight.

  1. Copy editors do make mistakes

Sometimes copy editors do get it wrong. This can happen when they aren’t subject matter specialists and aren’t familiar with the idioms and terms of art in your field. I’ll never forget how the copy editor assigned to my first book inexplicably changed all instances of “consumer culture” to “the consumer culture.” I’ll admit that I got really worked up about it when I was reviewing the edits. But I really needn’t have gotten so irritated. All I had to do was just change it back to the way it was supposed to be and move on, which is what I eventually did, and it was fine.

Now, sometimes a copy editor will make a change across your text that can’t just be easily and quickly changed back by you. I know an author whose copy editor changed the capitalization convention of every species name in her book, which was horrifying to the author because there were a ton of them in the text (it would’ve taken her hours to change them all back) and she knew that her target audience of specialists would think she was ignorant if she used the capitalization scheme that the copy editor had imposed. In that case, I advised her to talk to her production editor and see if the copy editor could reverse the changes they’d made. It all ended up working out without the author having to spend hours personally fixing it.

If you really believe your copy editor has been uninformed or disrespectful to you, your culture, or your work, then by all means speak up about it to your publisher. Just try to remember that the copy editor may be dealing with their own experiences of precarity and undercompensation before you ask to speak to the manager about them. That doesn’t excuse insensitivity or ignorance of course—I think you’ll be able to trust your gut on whether this is a person who means well or someone who is being malicious and really should be put on notice by the publisher.

  1. Perfect copy is impossible to achieve

Also remember that your copyeditor is human. They will not catch every error in your text. I think industry standard is something like 95%, so if you happen to see an error or two after your manuscript has been copy edited, it doesn’t mean your copy editor did a bad job. To put it in perspective, they may have correctly caught hundreds or thousands of errors across your manuscript, so missing a handful is actually acceptable. This is why it’s important for you to carefully go through your text as well, especially at the proofreading stage, because your eyes may catch something on that pass that even the copyeditor missed.

I thought this was going to be a short little newsletter post but it turns out I had a lot to say about copy editing! Anyway, if you’re skimming this, the main takeaway is that your copy editor—in nearly all cases—is there to be your ally, not your antagonist. If you try to assume good faith on their part, you’ll probably save yourself a lot of aggravation and emotional distress.

Coming up
The next session of the Manuscript Works Book Proposal Accelerator is starting in less than a month. There are still some spots left, so snag one if you’re looking for some structured guidance to finish (or start) a pitchable scholarly book proposal in January and February.