Copy Editing – Part II: My Experience with Copy Editors

My experiences with copy editors.

This is the second installment of my series about copy editing. As I discuss in Part I, part of this series is a rant based on 15 years of accumulated frustration. This Part is where I blow steam.

Stet!Copy Editors and My Work

I have to start out by saying that my work is usually not very heavily edited. I take that to mean that one or more of the following are true (or is that is true? I never said my grammar was perfect.):

  • I know how to write. Seems funny to even make that statement. It’s pretty obvious that I know how to write when I’ve been doing it for a living for so long.
  • My publishers have a limited budget for copy editing. This might be true with my “packaged” books — those are the ones I write, lay out, and submit as InDesign files, TIFFs, and PDFs. But I don’t think that’s the case with my more traditionally produced books.
  • The copy editors I get don’t know what they’re doing. For the most part, I don’t believe this is true. How can they be copy editors when they don’t know what they’re doing?

So I tend to believe it’s the first reason more than the others.

But the reason doesn’t really matter. Any writer can tell you that they’d rather see their work lightly copy edited than heavily copy edited. The reason: the percentage of original words, sentences, and paragraphs that “survive” the editing process. Light editing means more of the author’s original work remains intact. Heavy editing means that less of the author’s original work remains intact. It’s as simple as that.

[I need to make a disclosure here. I am guilty of being a heavy-handed editor. I’ve worked with co-authors on three occasions. On two of them, I had final say over the text that would become the content. In both cases, I tried to change the co-author’s “voice” to match mine. Voice is a sort of writing style that comes across in sentence construction, etc. In one case, the co-author didn’t give a hoot; he was just glad that someone was going through the text and making the style consistent. In the other case, the co-author was rather upset and offended. In both cases, I did what I did to make the book better. Or at least better in my opinion. Whether I made it better or worse is something we’ll never know. In any case, I’ve decided that it’s probably best if I stay away from the co-author role.]

Ten Editions, Ten Experiences

I just completed the tenth edition of one of my books. Each revision begins with the previous edition’s text and edits it so it covers the current software product. Some years, less than 5% of the book’s content changes. Yet for the first few years, the book was sprinkled with copy edits — I could see them because we use Microsoft Word to prepare the manuscript and the revision feature is turned on throughout.

Every year’s editor — because there have been 8 of them over 10 editions — had a different “pet change.” For example, one editor didn’t like where I put words like “only” and would invariably move them to another part of the sentence. I’d read the sentence both ways and either way worked for me — although it obviously sounded more natural to me the way I’d originally written it. Another editor liked to add commas. That didn’t matter much, because the next year’s editor liked to remove commas. One year’s editor decided that all the names of menu commands, dialogs, and options within the software should be in title case, no matter how it was presented in the software. So the Show color for Background image check box would become the Show Color For Background Image check box. One editor rolled up her sleeves and rewrote a bunch sentences that the previous editions’ editors had either fiddled with themselves or left as is. The most recent editor decided to introduce italics to some text that had never had it before.

How I Felt about It

Each year — the book is revised annually, every summer — my attitude toward the copy edits changed.

At first I didn’t mind so much, although I got seriously peeved when the production editor for the first edition started making changes to content that we’d all already agreed on. (That’s another story and not a happy one, although I did get the last laugh.)

Then, as I saw the current year editor change things that the previous year’s editor had changed so it was what I’d originally written (or pretty close to it), I started complaining. I could do that since the book’s very first edition had become a bestseller and the publisher wanted to keep me happy. (Don’t try this for your first book, kids.) The copy editor on that edition tuned things down a notch.

But the following year it was back to what I consider “changes for the sake of making changes.” I got fed up, blew a gasket, and decided that I didn’t care about the changes. I’d just rubber-stamp everything. And I did for two or three years.

But then I started caring again, right around the time I got a good editor two years in a row. (Where is she now? Come back!)

Last year’s editor wasn’t bad, although he did ask a lot of questions that seemed designed to point out errors in my text rather than just fix them. For example, “The art shows that the dialog is called Colors, not Color as you have indicated here. You also called it Colors in five other places. Should I make the change here?” Uh, yeah. Isn’t that what you’re here for? Of course, I didn’t say that. I just thought it. Loudly, in my head. If he would have just made the change, I would have seen it with the revision marks and would have checked it and would have realized his edit was correct.

This Year

This year’s copy editor absolutely wigged me out. Her orders were supposed to be to edit the text that has changed. Remember, the majority of the book is exactly the same as it was the previous year. This year, about 20% of the text changed. That means she only had to look at 20% of the manuscript — the part with all the colored revision marks. Yet she insisted on copy editing the whole thing. She inserted a bunch of commas, which I really don’t care about. (Next year’s editor will pull them back out and I won’t care about that, either.)

But she also decided that all occurrences of Web should be web and that some terms, menu commands, feature names, and dialog options should be italicized. The problem with this is consistency — there wasn’t any. A command name on one page would be in normal type and the same command name on the next page might be in italics.

I freaked and I complained to the project editor. The formatting was wrong and inconsistent, I’d have to undo every wrong change she’d made while reviewing the edits. It was annoying and time-consuming and I had another (dare I say it?) more important book lined up after this one to write.

The PE clarified the instructions to the CE. The CE continued to make the same changes. I freaked again. I couldn’t get the PE on the phone, so I wrote a nasty e-mail to the CE. (I’d thrown my back out the day before and was in incredible pain, but still had to work on the book to meet the deadline, so I was pretty cranky. I wrote the e-mail just before heading out to the chiropractor.) I got scolded by the PE. I defended my complaints. The PE talked to the CE again. And then the CE stopped reviewing anything except the edits (as she should have been from the start). And guess what? In three of the remaining 12 chapters, she had absolutely no changes.

Now tell me, what does that say to you?

More to Come…

In Part III of this series, I’ll tell you what that said to me. Until then, if you want to share copy editor horror stories, the Comments link or form is a good place to do it.

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