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Copyediting. Vital. Do It or Have It Done.

By Diana Hume George

Maybe most apprentice writers don’t think that copyediting and proofreading manuscripts are issues of craft, but if they don’t, they’re wrong. These are the most basic craft matters in the book, in any book. Professional writing must be 100% clean. It must be free of errors in punctuation, usage, mechanics, and spelling. No typos. Period.

Whether it’s a stranger calling me at a university, or someone talking to me after a reading or at a conference, my conversations about it usually go like this:

“I’ve been working on this book for a long time, and I’ve finally got it finished, so now I need advice on sending it to agents and editors.”

“Uh-huh,” I say. “Is it copyedited?” I used to ask this last. Now I ask it first.

“Is it what?”

“It is clean? Have you had it line-edited?”

“I used spell-check.”

“Spell-check is sub-step one. Have you proofread it closely? Is it consistent in format throughout? Have you checked for grammar and usage and punctuation problems? For homonym errors?”

“What’s a homonym?”

“Like their and there and they’re.”

“No, not really, but that’s minor stuff I can catch later.”

“No, it isn’t. And have you vetted it for repetitious passages and clichés? Dictional and tonal consistency?”

I’m usually twitching by now, so the person knows better than to repeat the it-doesn’t-matter-much line. So he asks, “Isn’t that the editor’s job?”

“No, it’s yours.” I try to make a break for it before the writer asks me if I could maybe check that stuff while I’m going through the memoir that she’s certain I’ll want to read before sending it to my agent.

Over my decades as a writer, a writing program director, and a writing teacher, I’ve noticed patterns that apply not only to my gifted apprentices, but also to some of my peers. Throughout our profession, I often see insufficient respect for the importance of a clean, copyedited manuscript in the sequence from rough draft to revision, before it’s sent to a magazine, journal, contest, agent, or publisher. I’ve seen PhDs in English more clueless than amateurs, whose ignorance is understandable. Many PhDs send merely spell-checked, but otherwise unedited, articles and book manuscripts to a press or a journal and then wonder why they never get out of the slush pile.

I evaluate manuscripts for several journals and presses, and it astonishes me how many people don’t take that stage of writing a book (or even an essay) seriously. In my capacity as a screener, I automatically reject any book or essay that does not honor the conventions. It doesn’t matter how good the content is. Editors won’t waste their time fixing matters that should have been attended to long before the writer sent it out as a professionally finished product. I use the analogy of carpentry. It’s as if an otherwise well-designed piece of woodwork had nails sticking out at odd angles.

Many writers have asked me to read book manuscripts that they’re certain are polished, that turn out to have several typos and mechanical glitches per page. No matter how original their content, the writers have zero chance of editors or outside evaluators reading any further than the first few pages. I don’t understand this will-to-fail, but I’ve seen a lot of it. Apparently most people think that an original idea or a good narrative or a compelling story is the only thing that really matters. They could not be more wrong.

Before any book of mine reaches an editor, it has been through at least half a dozen complete drafts. That’s a conservative estimate. When the manuscript is as error-free as I can get it, I have it copyedited by a fellow writer or by a professional. More errors always surface, to say nothing of previously unnoted clichés and repetitions of entire phrases from previous pages that have escaped my own revisions.

One way to do this proofing without going broke is to find a friend with a sharp eye and trade services with that writer over the long haul. My editing partner and I go over and over each other’s drafts. He kills entire paragraphs, often when I am still too close to the work to see that he’s right. He sometimes finds my editing tone equally offensive. We each know the other person is usually right in the end, not just about correctness—that’s relatively easy; there are rules—but also about judgment calls.

Because I publish most of my books with university presses, I get thoroughly copyedited at the press stage, far more than in the trade world. In-house editors use what’s called house style—the conventions of phrasing or format or usage that publishers prize as their press standard. They slice out pages. I rant. I pitch fits. I lose. And almost always, the editors, damn their eyes, were right.

Professional copyeditors work full-time at publishing houses, and many magazines hire freelancers to copyedit their contributing writers, both for substance and for house style. But if you’re a freelance writer yourself, in-house professionals are not usually the people you’ll be hiring; you’re looking for a freelancer in editing, just like you’re a freelancer in writing. Freelance copyediting of this kind is now a full-fledged profession. In some urban centers, especially in New York, book manuscript reading fees can run into the thousands, but you needn’t think in those terms. You can hire a professional for far less if you can’t find someone with whom to barter services.

This subprofession of the broad category of editing is relatively new, and there are reasons for its emergence. I think it’s been opened up by the unfortunate and simultaneous occurrence of two things. First, there’s been a general decline in would-be writers’ knowledge of mechanics, probably because machines do a lot of work for us now, so we never really internalize those “elements of style.” A previous generation knew its Strunk and White. But I cannot tell you how many completed manuscripts I have seen, penned by writers with MFA degrees, where the comma after a quote is outside the quotation marks—and this in American-usage books, not in British ones. That particular punctuation error permeates the majority of fiction and memoir manuscripts I’ve seen lately. I can only conclude that most writers don’t read much.

Combine lack of expertise with a decline in the working relationship between authors and press editors. A famous example of the former relations between writers and their editors is the one between Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, where Pound substantially revised Eliot’s poems in draft after draft before publication, changing Eliot’s works perhaps too much. That misty example of the editorial ideal is almost a century old now. Contrast it with this, from a writer who has a contract with a press for her book and asked for some minor advice from her editor. The editor said, “Can’t you have your agent do that for you?” (The agent found this laughable as a service she should provide; few agents offer what I’d call copyediting services.)

Another writer I know says that books are so under-edited in the trade world that for her pre-contracted third book, she accidentally sent in the final manuscript with dozens of pages missing. Her editor never noticed, and if the writer had not caught the error, it would have gone to the printer. (She suspects her editor never actually read the entire book. I wish I didn’t believe her.)

A final word about who copyedits your book or essay: don’t automatically trust an English professor or journalist or fellow writer. As I’ve already implied, English professors do not necessarily know squat about copyediting, beyond the level of correcting an essay or term paper. Whatever your choice, make sure you have reason to trust the person’s skills. Don’t trust anyone to be a foolproof proofreader until you see his or her skills in action. As for doing it all yourself, few writers ever get that good at it. Very few people can edit themselves successfully, because we literally cannot see our own mechanical errors or infelicities—and infelicities are as important as actual errors.

Example: sometimes a writer uses a word, any word, four or five times within a few lines, creating the effect of flat, repetitive style, and while the writer can’t see it, a good copyeditor will instantly spot it. So figure out where you need help, from light page-proofing to heavy lifting. If your book is worth writing, it’s worth righting. (These are homonyms, I think. But don’t trust me on that.)


Diana Hume George is the author of The Lonely Other and a number of other books. She teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Goucher College.


photo by Dinty W. Moore / Art by Duchamp