Copyediting a Manuscript

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of learning for me, as my agent and I negotiated our way through the final amendments to the book contract. But one clause in that contract, perhaps more than any other, has taught me the most so far–and that’s the clause about my publisher not providing a copyeditor. Certainly, they’ll proofread and deal with any flaws in design and layout. But when it comes to copyediting, they’re hands off. That’s not standard practice, which is why a clear point of this task was made in the final contract. I’m all for clarity, but I have to admit, it felt a little daunting to think about paying someone to do this very important task when I’m not going to receive my first royalty check for book sales until as late as August 2014.

First things first, I had to ask: What’s the difference between proof reading and copyediting? Answers vary depending on the type of writing being examined, but by and large proofreading is just basic correction of errors, plain and simple. Copyediting, however, includes correcting errors in grammar, spelling, usage, style (ex. Chicago Manual of Style); as well as checking for logical inconsistencies, unnecessary “ticks” at the line level, clear speech tags and pronoun attribution, and overall clarity of ideas. For obvious reasons, fact-checking plays a larger role in copyedits for a nonfiction manuscript than fiction, though fiction still has to play by the rules of consistency and plausibility.

I priced things out with three different professionals by sending them the same 6-page sample. The copyeditors didn’t agree on all points and their prices ranged from $450 to $1000 for a 175 page manuscript. Some provided a style sheet along with the sample copyedit that kept track of proper nouns and facts within each story (to check for consistency). Others posed questions about whether or not something was accurate (Is that the correct name for that river?) but didn’t provide the answer, while still a different copyeditor didn’t fuss over river names at all. Here’s an example of a sentence that all three copyeditors reviewed differently:

It’s dark enough that they can’t see me, so I toss a balled up t-shirt far as I can toward enemy fire to mess with their thinking.

It’s dark enough that they can’t see me, so I take off my shirt, ball it up, and throw it as far as I can toward enemy fire to mess with their thinking.

This copyeditor suggested that her re-wording might be clearer, though she felt the way I wrote it originally struck her more.

This copyeditor didn’t change the sentence at all, but she highlighted “t-shirt” and said it should probably be “T-shirt” and then provided me with a link that explained this further. She left a second comment noting the absence of “as” before “far,” stating that she assumed it was a style choice but wanted to call it to my attention just to be certain.

This copyeditor said I could leave the sentence exactly the way it was, but noted missing commas and an absolute phrase modifier further down on the page that the others did not comment on.

I have no doubt that I would have received a really good reading from each of them, but in the end I went with the copyeditor who charged $450–who also happened to have the most experience. By researching my options, I learned that I wanted a copyeditor who:

a) Understood what my style was (and therefore wouldn’t have to comment on it–but would let it be, in most cases, for style’s sake).

b) Didn’t create more work for me by making me research or decide about things that, in some cases, didn’t actually need to be decided on.

c) Could identify line-level “ticks” in my style that, however “correct,” damaged flow and clarity.

With approximately two weeks to get the manuscript copyedited, make all the changes I need to make, and hand over the final document to the publisher, I was also pleased to learn that the copyeditor I hired would read the manuscript through twice, complete the job within 4 days, and include a follow-up phone conference in the package. And most fascinating of all was the opportunity to see my manuscript marked up time and time again for these three things: First, absolute phrase modifiers following speech tags; second, arcane speech tags; and third, the non-referential “it.” My next blog post will de-code those nervous writerly ticks, so stay tuned.

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