Copy-editing

If substantive editing is the endangered aristocrat of academic publishing, then copy-editing is the ubiquitous cleaner, tidying up other people’s messes. Cleaners never get bouquets on opening night but without them the show soon stops. (Something to consider when the amount of red-inked text returned to you turns you scarlet with rage. More about that in my next post.)

Actually, I am being unfair. In a recent post I have recounted how some authors regard their copy editors as obsessive and anal-retentive. I neglected to add that many other authors have a warm relationship with their copy editor, singling her out for especial praise in the book’s acknowledgements. Perhaps this is because the author realizes that the only person actually to have closely read his text is the lowly copy editor. A key factor, too, is just how this copy-editing is carried out (see below).

Copy-editing concerns itself with language, formatting and presentation issues. The copy-editor will read your manuscript very carefully (perhaps obsessively) from beginning to end, checking that grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct. She will also correct any deviations from the publisher’s house style and normal scholarly conventions (deviations that have escaped the scrutiny of the Style Nazi), and check that your citations match your bibliography (missing references and redundant entries in the bibliography are common). In addition, unnecessary repetitions, unclear phrasing, faulty transitions and verbosity may be flagged for attention.

It is unlikely that your copy-editor will attempt an extensive rewriting of your text or a general alteration of your basic style – copy-editors are not paid enough to spend time on such major surgery – but you may be consulted on anything that is unclear or needs fine-tuning.

The copy-editor also functions as a bridge for the author between the editorial department (primarily concerned with meaning) and the typesetter (focused on ‘fit’ and appearance). Thus, the copy-editor not only inserts corrections and queries but also marks up the text with typesetting instructions. If you get your copy-edited text back on paper, then you may see a whole lot of weird notations in the margins (for instance, a circled ‘H1’ or ‘A’ used to mark a first-level heading).

Exactly how the copy-edit is carried out can vary a lot and can a big influence on the relationship between author and copy editor. For instance, one of our copy editors is Jonathan. He works at home in a country cottage in one of the remoter parts of Britain. Jonathan edits manuscripts in paper form only; he hates on-screen editing (I can imagine him spreading the different parts of the manuscript out on his kitchen table, flicking back and forth between the chapter under edit and the list of references). He insists on receiving the full manuscript (including any preliminary material) and works through this methodically, returning the edited manuscript to us by post about 4–6 weeks later. Someone then needs to key these changes, often the author. Jonathan is a warm, lovely person but all of his dealings are with the Press; he has no contact with the author. There is no chit-chat during the edit but – if not entered directly in the text – there may be a list of queries and comments to the author appended to the finished manuscript.

In contrast, another of our copy editors I shall call Diane. She too works at home but in her case this is in a walled villa on the outskirts of a bustling Asian metropolis. Diane works on screen and often engages with her authors during the edit. She, too, insists on having the full manuscript but there is a bit more give and take here since material can be exchanged electronically on the fly. The job takes a bit longer but the result is that we receive a manuscript blessed by the author and in electronic format ready to typeset.

Which approach is better? That is hard to say. Undeniably, Jonathan’s approach could be called that of the past, Diane’s that of the future. But that doesn’t mean anything in terms of quality.

In terms of reference checking, some editors say that working on paper is easier (and hence more likely to be carried out thoroughly). But in terms of global changes (say, removing excess spaces and changing every instance of ‘analyze’ to ‘analyse’, except those found in direct quotations), working with the electronic files is best (let’s just hope there are no font problems). Finally, in terms of author engagement, you would expect ongoing chit-chat to work better than the hands-off approach but the reality is mixed; human chemistry is a wonderful thing.

Anyway, whatever the form that the copy-edit takes (but depending on the size and complexity of the copy-editing job), you should receive your edited text back from the publisher within one or two months. As you can see from the examples of Jonathan and Diane above, the corrected text may be delivered to you in electronic form or on paper. If in electronic form, then there are quite a few choices including PDF proof documents ready for annotation and Word documents with tracked changes or showing the results of before–after file comparisons. If you receive the copy editor’s changes on paper, you may see the pages annotated with correction marks in the margins and inserted in the text (examples of these to be linked here once I’ve worked out how to do this).

So the copy-edit is finally done. The question now is, what are you going to do about it? Something to explore in my next post.

(Post #4 of the Editorial section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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4 Responses to Copy-editing

  1. Wobbler says:

    Hi and thanks for the interesting blog that you write here! As someone who’s not professionally involved in science and scholarly communication/publication, I appreciate the insights from the perspective of the/a journal publisher.

    I have a question on this subject. How common is copy-editing exactly? I had a discussion (on FriendFeed) the other day on how copy-editing is a valuable added value of publishers. A number of scholars in that discussion told me that they’ve never even heard of such services actually being provided until they’ve published in high profile/impact journals (like Nature).

    The problem is that I don’t know if they were talking about “plain” copy-editing or substantive editing, but I’m assuming it’s the former? I have to admit that I also didn’t know the difference between these editing services before I read your (last) post.

    • Hi, and thanks for the feedback.

      How common is copy-editing? I get the feeling that in a lot of journals, any editing is the responsibility of the author. For a book publisher this is extraordinary. All books are edited. Usually this means that they are copy-edited and at the bare minimum their language is cleaned up.

      Well, that’s the ideal situation. There are ‘publishers’ out there who simply slap a cover on a bundle of lecture notes or conference papers and call it a book, which it may be a first glance. But it ain’t a real book and the publisher is offering negligible added value.

      • Wobbler says:

        I see. So journal publishers providing copy-editing services are more the exception than the rule. So, generally speaking, can I conclude that “copy-editing” is not an advantage that journal publishers have over self publishers? Since most of them won’t provide those services by default anyway?

      • I am a book publisher so frankly I don’t know enough to make a definite reply on this. Certainly, I once thought that journals copy-edited their articles until disabused of this idea by the stories of different researchers I talked to. I think I’ll post this query to a few sites on H-Net to see what different experiences are.

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