Axing the General Who Hadn’t Been Born Yet: What a Copy Editor Can Do for You
by Robert A. Juran
Let’s have a long talk about copyediting.
Many people seem to forget that with inferior copyediting—or indeed no copyediting at all—a book can be blown right out of the water. Inferior copyediting, or none, means that a book will almost certainly be filled with errors of various kinds: spelling, grammar, usage, punctuation, and many more, and worst of all, factual errors. So what happens? The book is rejected by reviewers, bookstore buyers, and even distributors and wholesalers—all of whom have plenty of other books to choose from.
And, of course, it will get a negative reaction from readers.
Some remarkable errors appear even in books issuing from the big-name New York publishing houses. In the recent past there was a novel by a prominent author in which a tennis player attained the unusual score of 20-love in a game. (Tennis scores go 15-love, 30, 40, and game.) In the book, the player was executed for murder, but the author was not even indicted. Just a few years ago, in an important nonfiction book, a well-known author asserted that the American commander at the Battle of New Orleans (1815) was Stonewall Jackson. Well, Stonewall, the Civil War general, hadn’t even been born in 1815. The commander at New Orleans was Andrew Jackson. And in the 26th printing of a certain hugely bestselling novel, a casual inspection unearths two allusions to “McGuffy” (instead of McGuffey) Readers, “it’s” instead of “its,” and Missouri spelled with a lowercase m. Any of these gaucheries would be inexcusable in the first edition, but in the 26th they are appalling.
A skilled and experienced copy editor should be able to eliminate every error so that a book will pass muster with reviewers, bookstore buyers, and so on. Your bottom line actually depends on it.
What follows addresses choosing a copy editor, the way copy editors work, and what they charge.
Levels of skill and experience vary considerably among copy editors. I recommend that you avoid choosing, as your copy editor, your dentist’s cousin who studied English literature in college, or your next-door neighbor who teaches fifth grade. These are amateurs. You want a professional.
Professional copy editors can be found through display and classified ads in the Independent, through recommendations from other publishers, and on the Internet.
To choose among them, you need to determine each copy editor’s skill level. Of course, you should ask for references, but it is all too easy to list friends and neighbors as references. The best alternative is to actually test skills.
This is why I created a Copy Editors Test some years ago. It consists of 100 questions, in the form of sentences, complete with answers. All but one of the questions contain some sort of error; I threw in the error-free one as the joker in the deck.
I believe most professional copy editors operate the way I do. I carefully scan every word of the manuscript, looking for every conceivable kind of error. Among other things, I’m looking for places where commas need to go, for run-on sentences, dangling modifiers, repetition, overlong paragraphs, bad word spacing (heavy hand on the space bar). You name it, I’m looking for it.
Did you inadvertently misspell the name of the book in the running title on every page? Did you call the heroine’s lawyer Bill Smith on page 28 and Bill Jones on page 137? Did you say someone left Los Angeles in his car at 2:15 and pulled into Santa Barbara (90 miles away) at 2:45? Your copy editor should catch those errors, among others.
The copy editor should also notice any computer-caused typographical problems, such as charts or tables in nonfiction books that are fouled up in some way, although all the copy editor can do in most such situations is mark the trouble spot “Fix.”
Copy editors frequently raise queries, often about sentences that seem to make no sense. Usually a query simply takes the form of a large question mark, although sometimes queries go into detail.
Some manuscripts seem to be the work of people skilled in English who are pretty good spellers. Their copy is relatively “clean,” meaning that it’s mostly free from errors, and the work of copy editing goes quickly and keeps the client’s cost down. On the other hand, some seem to be by people who are functionally illiterate or close to it. The copy is “dirty,” meaning loaded with errors, so it costs plenty to have these books copyedited.
I do all my copyediting on double-spaced paper pages using a green felt-tip pen. Then the client inputs the corrections into the manuscript. This approach means that the manuscript travels to and from the copy editor via postal mail. The vast majority of authors and publishers who have contacted me have gone along with this arrangement, although I recognize that editing and copyediting are now usually done on screen.
I think it likely that most copy editors who work for IBPA members function in about the same way I do. I give each prospective client a rough estimate of the cost. I offer to do a free sample copyediting of 10 pages of the manuscript and believe any reputable copy editor should make the same offer.
Then, when someone decides to have me copyedit a book, I require a check for half the estimate along with the manuscript. When I am finished with the job, the client sends me the balance of the fee. (And virtually no client has ever failed to do so.)
Since copy editors must compete with one another, I suspect rates are pretty much the same. Mine range from $29 to $42 per hour. The bigger the job, the lower my rate. For example, if you hand me a two-hour job, it will cost $42 per hour. But if you hand me a massive 60-hour job, the cost drops to just $29 per hour.
One other factor determines how much the job will cost—how light or heavy the copyediting needs to be. If the copy is dirty, heavy copyediting will be necessary, running up the cost. But if the copy is fairly clean, the copyediting will be light and go quickly, keeping the cost down. Usually, I can copyedit 24 pages an hour for what I term an average book. That is two and a half minutes per page.
In other words, I can edit the average book (say, 250 reasonably clean double-spaced manuscript pages) in about 10 ½ hours. That will cost the publisher $36 an hour, or $375. That is a fairly typical price, I have found, for the work I do.
When I checked my bills for the last 21 books or smaller works I copyedited, I found that the average cost was $292, which strikes me as a small price to pay for a significant effect on your bottom line.
Common Mistakes Not to Make
The first word in each set on this list is often misused when what the writer means is the second. Check your dictionary or a usage book to find the correct usage.
comprise / compose
gauntlet / gantlet
aggravate / irritate
anxious / eager
cement / concrete
convince / persuade
everyday / every day
less / fewer
flaunt / flout
jibe / gibe
masterful / masterly
nauseous / nauseated
premiere / premier
prophesy / prophecy
toting up / totting up
presently / currently
further / farther
forbear / forebear
historical / historic
hone in / home in (verb)
loathe / loath
. . . And as Jimmy Durante used to say, “I got a million more where that came from!”
Robert A. Juran reports that he has been copyediting books for IBPA members for 17 years, and has at this point edited 134 books for 97 authors and publishers. A retired newspaper editor, he is also the author of 13 nonfiction books and two monographs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503/520-1801.