From Manuscript to Book: The Copyedit, Part 1


The General’s Women, the third in my series of historical / biographical novels, is now in the production queue. I’ve asked a number of people (historians, a biographer, and other readers) to read it and give me suggestions. The next step is to put together a production team, which includes a copyeditor, a cover designer, and a formatter, in addition to Kerry Sparks, who manages publishing, distribution, and subrights.

I asked an editor, now retired from the University of Texas Press, to recommend someone good–someone who is used to dealing with footnotes. (The epilogue of the novel tells a true story for the first time, so I’ve documented my sources.) My editor friend recommended Sandra Spicher. Sandra and I got acquainted via email. After this preliminary handshake, I sent her my manuscript (in Word). She returned several sample pages, edited. I was delighted, and asked her to join my production team. (More about that in future posts.)

You can meet Sandra via her website. But since I know that many of you are also writers, I thought you’d like to know what a copyeditor does. (The book publishing industry makes copyeditor one word, Sandra tells me; for journalism, it’s two.) Readers may be interested in book production, as well. After all, you’re the final beneficiary of the copyeditor’s work. The copyeditor may be invisible, but she (or he) contributes enormously to the book’s final presentation.

I asked Sandra to send me some of her thoughts, as a copyeditor, about the process of working with an author. Here are her thoughts. (More coming in a later post.)

1. An author usually starts looking for a copyeditor when she has revised the manuscript in response to feedback from herbeta readers and/or a developmental editor and feel that it’s super clean. It just needs fresh eyes and a final polish.

2. An author needs to be sure she’s compatible with her copyeditor, and we want that, too. Ask published authors in your writing groups and on social media for a few recommendations. Out of these, choose two to four prospects who appeal to you, or who have worked on manuscripts similar to yours. Investigate us online, if you like—you’d do that for a person watching your children or pets, right? Your book deserves someone who will treat it with similar tenderness and respect.

3. Approach the copyeditors you’ve selected one at a time (that is, no multiple submissions) with a query similar to what you might send an agent: include word count, a brief description of the book, and how you heard about them. Suggest a schedule and ask about availability. Be frank about the genre, any explicit sex or violence, religious and political themes, and so on.

4. Most copyeditors are glad to provide a brief sample edit at no charge. It’s the way many of us discover whether we’re compatible with an author or manuscript, too, and what our budget should be. It’s best to send your entire manuscript in Microsoft Word so that the copyeditor can choose a few pages to work on. Most of us realize that the first few pages are likely to be the cleanest, and we’ll pick a section from the last half of the book to sample.

5. When you receive the sample copyedit, read through the corrections to get a feel for the kind of things that are marked. You should sense a willingness to explain rules but not necessarily to insist upon them. When I’m editing, I refer constantly to dictionaries, websites, and style guides—and many of those contradict each other.  From the beginning, English has been expanding to fit our world, to the delight of many copyeditors and the dismay of others. When in doubt, an experienced copyeditor will query or let the author’s decision stand. The sample should help you determine which way your copyeditor leans, and whether the two of you are a match.

You’ll hear more from Sandra later, and I’ll also include some of my own observations about working with a copyeditor.

Reading note. Self editing is the path to the dark side. Self editing leads to self delusion, self delusion leads to missed mistakes, missed mistakes lead to bad reviews. Bad reviews are the tools of the dark side.–Eric T. Benoit

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