Monday, January 11, 2010

No Such Thing as a Pop-Tart

All Hail the Copy Editor!
So the next stage of the manuscript-to-book process is the copy edit. (See previous post, “What Takes So Long?”) The copy edit means the story is really, truly in its final form. The book has obviously been edited already, (and in the case of The Blessings of the Animals had been rewritten three major times). Copyediting is saved for when all those revisions and actual changing of the story are over. It’s like I always stress whenever I teach a fiction class: revision and proofing are very different stages, both equally important, but not done at the same time.

Copyediting is nit picky, down and dirty, close, careful examination of the grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Why waste time doing this most valuable work until you know you have the story exactly where you want it? If you start obsessing over it too early, you end up proofing a scene that might end up being deleted in its entirety! We all have better things to do than that, right?

Now I try to proof the book as carefully as I can before I send it to my editor, but one of the downfalls of working on a book for so long (like years and years...) is that after a while, you see what you WANT to be there, not what really is. I might read a passage with an error in it five or six times and not notice the error, because I read the passage how I intended it to be. So a good copyeditor is an incredible gift!

At HarperCollins, most of the copyeditors are freelance and work from home. Once their work on a manuscript is done, they send it back to the book’s production editor (a different person than the editor I described in the previous post), who then sends it on to the author for review.

When it arrives, it looks like a manuscript—a stack of loose pages. But it’s a printout of the manuscript that has been copyedited electronically (using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments functions). On nearly every page there is a note (or several) for me to check. A vertical bar shows up alongside any line of text that has been changed in some way. The change might be as simple as a comma added or deleted, or as major as a piece of writing that contains a mistake.

An example of a mistake my wonderful copyeditor caught was that on an early page of the manuscript, my narrator says, “Stormwatch was the horse my father rode to three of his Olympic gold medals.” Many chapters later, a reference is made to the father: “He won four Olympic golds before a brutal fall injured his spine....” The copyeditor wrote a note: "Was the fourth medal won on another horse? Or should this ‘four’ be changed to ‘three’?” My narrator's father did indeed win the fourth medal on another horse—which was made clear later in the book—but a reader getting to this point might very rightly think I’d made a mistake. You never, ever want readers to think you’ve made a mistake, because if too many add up, they get irritated and stop believing any of your characters...and worst of all, they might hurl your book across the room and stop reading altogether. Soooo, I went back to the first reference and changed the line to: “Stormwatch was the horse my father rode to three of his four Olympic gold medals.”

I want to hug and kiss the copyeditor every time she catches something like this!

I have to go through every single change and with a brightly colored pencil (I chose blue) either okay it, or mark it “STET” which means “let it stand” or roughly, “leave it alone, this is exactly what I meant"—as in the example of "the perfume of horse manure" being changed to "odor of horse manure." Nope, my character (and I) actually do think of it as perfume! [Tangent: I wish I knew what STET really stood for. I mean, I know it means to “let it stand,” but what exactly do those letters stand for? Why STET? Why not LIS? Anyone know the origin?]

My former middle school students would feel smug and vindicated to know just how many comma errors my copyeditor found! And how many times an antecedent to a pronoun wasn’t clear. Oops.

The copyeditor also verifies things like proper nouns and trademark names. I’m always exceedingly vexed by how inconsistent horse and dog breeds are when it comes to capitalization (and there are a lot of horses and dogs in this book!). The horse breed thoroughbred is NOT capitalized, but the horse breed Quarter Horse is. Why? Hmm.

And I’m embarrassed that after years of relying on it to detangle horse tails, my copyeditor had to point out that the product is ShowSheen, not Sho-Sheen.

And did you know there’s no such thing as a Pop-Tart? I discovered that when my first novel, Traveling Light was copyedited. The trademark name is plural: Pop-Tarts. I could not have a line that said, “She ate a Pop-Tart.” Nope. And since it sounds ridiculous to say, “She ate a Pop-Tarts,” I changed it to “She ate some Pop-Tarts.” (Actually I think the sentence was a little more complicated and interesting than least I hope it was!)

A copyeditor will check to make sure a gun you have a character fire can actually hold that many bullets, will check to make sure the medicine you have a character take for an infection is truly what a doctor would prescribe, and will check to make sure your character doesn't change hair or eye color halfway through the book. She is a combination of a killer grammarian and a reference librarian extraordinaire, complete with a photographic memory. Again—All Hail the Copyeditor!

Needless to say, the process of going through the copyedited manuscript and considering every correction is time-consuming and tedious…but so, so, SO important. I could only work for a couple hours before I’d need a long break. I’d catch myself agonizing over a text break or word choice for twenty minutes!

It’s the last chance to add anything or make changes. Later, I’ll have the opportunity to review the first pass—but at that point I can only correct actual errors and can’t change or add anything else.

I'm past the point of no return...


  1. "Stet" (according to Wikipedia and what little I remember from studying Latin over 50 years ago) is a word actually meaning "let it stand", not an abbreviation , like the suggested "LIS". It comes from the Latin irregular verb "sto, stare, steti, status".

  2. There's no such thing as a pop-tart...?!

    I think my world just fell apart.

  3. "Stet" means "let it stand". It's the third person singular present subjunctive form of the Latin verb "stare".

    Note: This is one of the few times that being a classics major has been practically useful.

    -Michael Beck

  4. Thank you, thank you, Michael and Jeckleday for the clarification (and for not pointing out how lazy I was not to look it up myself...). And, Kerry, I know just what you mean. :-)

  5. I quoted this blog post while subbing for 6th graders today. We were working on revision skills for biography reports, and a bunch of them said that their rough drafts were "all done." And I said "Nobody's rough draft is ready to be a final draft, not even the best writers in the world." And then I talked about this famous writer that I was reading about got their interset, anyway.

  6. I LOVE it, Lindsy! I love it. Since I used to teach middle school, this does my heart good!