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Defining Your Copyediting Needs

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In the April issue of this newsletter, Curt Matthews mentioned the need for independent publishers to pay more attention to editorial concerns. While “big picture issues” such as content and structure are vitally important, we shouldn’t disregard the “picky little details” of a thorough copyedit. Publishers who rely solely on a grammar-check and spell-check take a big risk. Computers aren’t that smart about consistency and context. A solid copyedit is worth the investment because a handful of errors can destroy credibility.The term copyedit means different things to different people. Many clients who turn over a job say, “All it needs is a copyedit.” I’ve heard these words used about everything from a 900-page manuscript needing extensive permissions and a major rewrite, to a polished document needing only a quick proof.The first step toward a solid copyedit is to define your expectations and to communicate them clearly. This is especially important when you rely on freelance editors. But it’s also helpful when you’re editing yourself.I split the editing process into three phases: (1) developmental or substantive editing, (2) copyediting, and (3) production editing. While this article focuses on copyediting, a brief description of the other two phases puts copyediting in perspective. Not every editor approaches the process the same way. They may perform some steps during other phases, or steps may overlap. What’s most important is that you clarify which steps have been taken, which steps you expect the copyeditor to perform, and which steps will follow.Here’s what I do during each phase, unless instructed otherwise:1. During the developmental or substantive edit, I examine “big picture” issues:

  • organization and structure
  • approach, focus, and tone
  • accuracy, clarity, and completeness
  • potential problem areas (biased language, permissions, trademarks)
  • length and fit
  • 2. During the copyedit, I address “picky little details”:
  • grammar and spelling
  • style issues
  • consistency
  • cross-references
  • typographic errors
  • 3. During the production edit, I apply “the polish”:
  • consistency of chapter titles, headers, footers, and numbering schemes
  • accuracy of index entries
  • compliance with formatting specifications
  • quality of images and typography
  • acceptability of end-of-line hyphenation

Now let’s explore copyediting in more detail.Grammar and Spelling. This step may seem like a “no-brainer,” but questions do arise. Unless you want your copyeditor to make all such decisions, you’ll need to indicate some preferences. For instance: Is it okay to start a sentence with a conjunction or end a sentence with a preposition? Do you wish to avoid split infinitives? Do you prefer “a” or “an” before a sounded h (such as a/an historic)? How closely do you wish to limit the use of “which” to nonrestrictive constructions? Where do you draw the line in using who versus whom? These questions have more than one right answer.If you’re distributing a book internationally and prefer British spellings, inform your copyeditor. If a book contains special terms, consider compiling a word list. If a book includes trademarks, indicate how you want them handled.Style Issues. Style varies with the audience, market, medium, organization, publication, and product, to say nothing of personal taste and the writer’s intent. Guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style answer many questions, but they can’t cover every possibility. You may also wish to make exceptions to certain guidelines. Many publishers use a house guide and/or word list for each book. Such guides and lists usually address abbreviations, capitalization, compound words, numbers, punctuation, and other points of style.Here are some examples.Abbreviations. List your preferences for capitalizing, punctuating, and spacing abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. Do you prefer pm, p.m., PM, or P.M.? E.B. White or E. B. White? Will you place the meaning first and then the abbreviation in parentheses, or vice versa?Capitalization. Capitalization styles vary from one publisher to another. When capitalization is arbitrary, “Up Style” capitalizes letters that “down style” sets in lowercase (Black and White vs. black and white). What’s your general preference?Compound Words. Inconsistent compounds can lead to “Hyphenation Hell.” Determine which compounds you’ll set as one word, two words, or hyphenated forms (copyedit vs. copy edit vs. copy-edit).Numbers. Indicate your standard “cut-off” point for spelling out numbers versus using numerals (10, 20, or 100). Also list special cases where you prefer one numerical treatment over another. For instance, how will you treat ages, centuries and decades, and round numbers (use numerals or spell them out?).Punctuation. Punctuation preferences vary considerably. Closed (heavy, traditional) punctuation uses more discretionary marks than open (light, informal) punctuation. Ensure that your copyeditor knows which approach you prefer. Also indicate whether or not you use serial commas (commas that come before a conjunction-such as “and,””or”-in a list of three or more elements).Consistency. This step is fairly straightforward in relation to person and tense and the use of contractions. But when it comes to bias-free language, things get more complex. Bias-free language uses terms that relate to age, ethnicity, race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, mental and physical characteristics, and socioeconomic factors only when they are accurate and appropriate. If recasting text to ensure bias-free language isn’t a priority, inform your copyeditor in advance.Cross-Reference Checks. This step involves comparing chapter titles to table of contents entries, and bibliographic entries and illustration numbers to citations within text. Headers and footers should be verified as well.Typographic Errors. While editors look for typos throughout the editing process, finding errors may be a more significant task during the copyediting phase. If you’re copyediting yourself, double-check headings (where errors often appear) and easily interchanged small words that a spell-check may miss (a, an, and; if, in, is, it; to, too; than, then, and so on). Finally, run your eyes over the page from bottom to top and right to left. Misspellings pop right out when you’re not distracted by the context.In an upcoming article, I’ll share a simple way to track and communicate custom style decisions.
© 1998 Lana R. Castle


Lana Castle runs Castle Communications, an Austin-based editorial service. She is also a columnist and author of “Style Meister: The Quick-Reference Custom Style Guide.” Her book, which helps readers customize and manage style for individual projects, is available to PMA members at a 20% discount. Call toll-free: 888/291-5005 or see http://www.castlecommunications.com. You can reach Lana at PO Box 200255-358, Austin, TX 78720, 512/346-2375, e-mail lrcas@aol.com.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor July, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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