While we all like to think of ourselves as careful writers, it's tough to keep track of all the dos and don'ts unless you are doing it every day. Nor is it a question of literacy. I've edited English professors, national news anchors, and politicians who commit about as many errors as anyone else -- and these are people who make their living with language! Now, if you're George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, both of whom are prone to grammatical errors, you'll get published anyway, but a first-time author has to make a good impression.
How (and Why)
Copyright © 2004
by Michael Carr
with Lynda Lotman
Book Editing Associates
|Who needs a copyeditor?
For a year now (or two, or ten), you have been hammering away at your manuscript, revising and reworking every scene and nuance until you know the characters better than you know your spouse.
You have sacrificed sleep, dinner with friends, your favorite sitcom, even your vacation, and finally it's ready to submit . . . or is it? Your own kid, looking over your shoulder, casually points out some incorrect punctuation, a grammatical error, and a dropped word -- all in the first paragraph.
And that hauntingly beautiful four-line sentence that you thought worthy
You feel a creeping suspicion that these little blemishes are not the
only ones. The sobering fact is that your labor of love needs a thorough
copyedit; otherwise, it is unlikely ever to become a book.
Alas, they are mistaken.
A clean, well-formatted manuscript is a publisher's or an agent's first clue that you are serious about your craft. It says to them, "Pay attention, now; this just might be worth your while."
On the other hand, if they are immediately assailed by comma splices, disagreeing subjects and verbs, and nonwords like irregardless, this implies a carelessness with language -- perhaps even with the truth itself.
It isn't that publishers and agents are intentionally petty, but each error grates just a little, disrupting the flow, and as they pile up, the reader begins to see only the mistakes, while missing the author's beautiful prose and riveting storyline altogether.
The stack of submissions is high, time is short, and the manuscript gets tossed.
|Publishing houses receive hundreds
of submissions every day. In-house editors are trained to crush the weak
and champion the strong. If you are an unpublished writer, you must be meticulously
polished and presentable just to get your foot in the door. Your presentation
and professionalism define your reputation and, ultimately, your success.
Bad spelling and faulty grammar can seriously undermine the impact of your
documents and marketing materials.
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While we all like to think of ourselves as careful writers,
it's tough to keep track of all the dos and don'ts unless
you are doing it every day. Nor is it a question of literacy.
I've edited English professors, national news anchors,
and politicians who commit about as many errors as
anyone else -- and these are people who make their living
with language! Now, if you're George W. Bush or Bill Clinton,
both of whom are prone to grammatical errors, you'll get
published anyway, but a first-time author has to make a
"But wait," you say. "A copy editor is just a glorified proofreader,
right? My fourteen-year-old can do that!"
Well, maybe. You see, the mechanical part is the least of the work -- the small stuff that gets corrected while the editor has an eye out for the trickier problems: the unwieldy sentences, logical fallacies, and inapt word choices.
(The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between caucuses and Caucasus.)
Then there are the factual errors: Your wildflowers have to be blooming in the correct season and hemisphere, your dinosaurs can't be walking on grass (because grass didn't exist yet), and your Regency romance can't make reference to the Charge of the Light Brigade, still forty years in the future. Even the best writers need a sharp-eyed copy editor to cover for their lapses.
I have seen both James Michener, one of the most successful writers of all time, and Peter Matthiessen, whom I adore, put safety catches on their revolvers (in Texas and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, respectively). The copy editor missed it, although to anyone knowledgeable about firearms, a mistake of such magnitude springs up off the page and sucker-punches them right in the sensibility.
Well, you may say, the authors should have known their material better.
Perhaps, but the copy editor was paid to know better. Copy editors are not walking dictionaries, but professional copy editors question everything and know where to find the answers, and quickly.
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Okay, so you realize you are in the market for a copyedit.
You're going to pay dollars you don't really have to
someone you've never met, so they will perform a service
you didn't even know you needed, in the far-from-certain
hope of getting your manuscript published. And now, after
five minutes on the Net, it's pretty clear that you haven't a
clue where to start, because everybody and his redheaded
cousin is a copy editor. It seems you could just go outside
and shake the nearest tree, and a copy editor or two would
And to further muddy the waters, you've heard stories of
everything from shoddy work to plagiarism and flat-out fraud.
|Part of the problem is that
unlike doctors, accountants, or real estate agents, anyone can proclaim
himself an editor. All we need is a computer and a Web site where we can
hang out our shingle. We have no regulating board, no professional certification,
and we don't sit for an exam. So how do you pick and choose? I mean, who's
for real, who's a wannabe, and who's an out-and-out sleaze?
(Hint: all of the above exist on the first page of your Google search.)
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You get what you pay for -- mostly.
You should get bids and samples from at least three freelancers. Depending on the shape your manuscript is in, most professional copy editors' rates will fall between, say, 3 and 5 cents per original manuscript word -- more if they are doing substantive editing as well. They have a look at your manuscript, gauge the amount of work, and then price the job according to what they expect to make per hour.
The quotes will vary because they are based on two factors: what each bidder expects to make, and how long that bidder sees the job taking. This is why you must have a sample edit from each bidder: to see which ones are likely to give you your money's worth.
Obviously, some may price themselves out of the market, but you should be especially wary of anyone offering you an improbably low bid. The reason for the lowball price is simple: these are "wannabe" editors who didn't pass anyone's copyediting test and hence can't get anyone to pay them more.
They hope to learn their trade on your nickel. Experienced copy editors, on the other hand, charge more for the simple reason that they can get more.
So when someone says they'll copyedit your manuscript for a penny a word (or even less), ask yourself how fast they'll have to work to make it pay, and what kind of job they can do for you at that speed.
See Beware the Lowball www.book-editing.com/pricing.htm
You now have three copyeditors who want to work for you.
Their references check out and the bids are all reasonable when you see the amount of editorial input -- but take another look. You're not just looking for the one who caught the most mistakes. That's not a bad thing, but it's possible to be too nit-picky, to the point that the author's voice is drowned in a sea of unnecessary changes and needlessly formal phrasings.
Better to pick the more nuanced sample, the editor with a subtle ear, who can hear what you are trying to do and then helps you pull it off -- the one who makes you sound more like you. If the editor's comments ring true, and you feel that the editor will help make you a better self-editor, then chances are, that's the editor to pick. And if you were reasonably efficient with your time, you spent about four hours on this whole process, which is not a bad investment.
No advice on this site should be used
without first contacting a professional in that field.
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