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Guest Post: 5 ways to avoid annoying your copy-editor (and why you should care)

This is a guest post from Tim Rutherford-Johnson, a freelance academic copy-editor who has seen it all and has the scars to prove it.

If you’ve not published before – or even if you have, but only in smaller magazines and journals – then you won’t have been copy-edited before. That will change when your first book is accepted for publication.

To the unsuspecting author, copy-editing can appear both frustratingly hands-off (so, there are no changes for pages – what are you doing after all?) and surprisingly invasive (you’ve re-written my entire bibliography – what’s up with that?). The truth is, copy-editing occupies a pretty undefined, liminal space between writing and mechanical proofreading. It’s less than one and more than the other, but beyond that there are no hard boundaries. Copy-editing is, however, an absolutely essential step between getting your book off your laptop and onto the shelves in Blackwell’s.

“The copy-editor is the reader’s advocate and the author’s ambassador.” (Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach, Butcher’s Copy-editing, fourth edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1)

During publication, your copy-editor will be the only person who knows your text anything like as well as you. Here are five ways to avoid making their job harder than it need be.

Stick to the brief

A nice easy one, but you’d be surprised how often it gets ignored. If you’ve agreed to write an 80,000-word popular introduction to aboriginal art, don’t turn in a 300,000-word ethnography of the Yolngu of North Arnhem. If something’s this off-base it may not even reach a copy-editor, but the principle holds on all levels. Remember: writing is a profession just like any other.

Hit the right tone

This applies across the board, but it’s most important in multi-contributor works like encyclopedias or text books. Read a similar publication first. Copy-editors can do a lot of things by themselves, but if the tone or voice of a piece is totally off-key it’s going to stretch even their powers. Rewriting isn’t an editor’s job – and quite rightly: it’s your name on the cover, so they should be your words. Expect to see your MS bounced back with a note politely asking you to try again.

Don’t be a stranger

At its best, copy-editing is a collaborative process between writer and reader. It’s the exciting phase of producing your book when you get to talk to other people rather than go slowly mad alone in your study. When your copy-editor has finished their first pass at your work they will almost certainly have a long list of ‘AQs’, or author queries. By this stage they have an emotional investment in your text and it is on their mind 24/7. So nothing is more frustrating than an author who goes suddenly AWOL. Not responding to emails or phonecalls just kills the moment.

Be flexible

When you receive your copy-edited MS (with its accompanying list of AQs) a lot of the corrections will seem pedantic, some of them pointless, some of them even stupid. However, they should all have been made for a reason. Now’s the time to step back and take a critical look at your work. Yes, someone has waded in and messed with your stuff in the name of ‘clarity’ or ‘house style’, but has it really done any harm? And aren’t some bits at least actually a little better? And is any of it worth picking a fight over?

Of course, some of it may be. Your copy-editor probably won’t be an expert in your field, so may inadvertently have misconstrued some specific technical vocabulary, for example. It happens. But they’d be glad to be politely corrected on such mistakes because that helps them get deeper into your text for the rest of the editorial process. Communication is the key.

Be a good scholar

If there’s one thing that sets academic writing apart from popular writing it is referencing. Precise citations, accompanied by a complete, accurate and well-organised bibliography are the foundation of scholarly writing. Yet good referencing is extremely difficult to pull-off. Your copy-editor will be fine with that: part of their job is to effect the most appropriate stye and organisation across your references. What they can’t handle are references that are incomplete, chaotic or even indecipherable. That’s simply poor scholarship. You may not need to write your bibliography in strict Chicago-Turabian just yet (although your publisher will probably advise you on this before you submit your MS), but do make sure that whoever reads it can tell the difference between a book, a chapter and an article, or you’re going to have a lot of AQs to deal with on your next vacation.

So why should you care?

Because copy-editors are human. Yes, we want to make your book absolutely perfect (our names don’t appear on the dustjacket, so a text that sings is our job satisfaction), but unfortunately we inhabit the same temporal stream as everyone else. If you’re not getting the above points in order, then you’re going to burn your copy-editor’s finite time on boring stuff rather than letting them loose on polishing your words. And this, after all, is what we both really want.

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