What’s the Copy-Edit?

My worklife in 2015 has been measured out in deadlines and delivery dates. First came the submission deadline for my book manuscript, March 15. That was followed by a long wait for the developmental edit, the editor’s comments on storyline, structure, flow, narrative voice, and other “macro” issues. It arrived July 8 with another deadline, September 1, for my revision. The revised version of the manuscript was then passed on from the executive editor to the managing editor, who sent it out for copy editing. I got the result November 5. For most of November I put off both fun and obligations “until the copy-edit is done.” Only after turning in my responses to the copy-edit just before Thanksgiving did I realize that people probably thought I was copy editing my own manuscript. What is “the copy-edit,” anyway?

The copy-edit is done by a professional copy editor, a meticulous reader trained to see the minutiae of writing: placement of commas, the need for a semi-colon, consistency in spelling and capitalization, precise use of vocabulary, etc. Because rules about such minutiae are not always absolute, this indispensable person has either memorized a certain style, an established set of guidelines, or has the skill to find answers quickly in a style book. Styles differ, but consistency always matters.  The copy editor on my book Beyond Good Intentions removed the extraneous commas after adverbs and prepositional phrases that opened sentences such as “Recently,” (see my first paragraph) or “After the snow had stopped falling, we went out to shovel the sidewalk.” In deference to her judgment I got into the habit of skipping those commas, as I just did in the opening of this sentence. That made extra work for the copy editor of The Big Marsh, who put them all back in. Neither is right or wrong. It’s a matter of style.

My job was to look over the freshly copy-edited manuscript and either accept or reject each of the changes the copy editor made. The author does get the final word, unless the managing editor has good reason to overrule either author or copy editor. I generally accepted the changes in punctuation. I tend to punctuate for breath, as though I’m reading the manuscript aloud. That makes for an excess of commas, which my copy editor dutifully deleted. I am grateful to copy editors for bearing the burden of punctuating correctly and for suggestions that save me from embarrassment. I still remember, fondly, the copy editor who cured me of a tic, the overuse of “very” to intensify adjectives.

Meticulous as they are, copy editors inspire authors, too, to take greater care in writing and revising. By daring to rewrite our precious prose, they make us more deliberate in our word choices. Before we reject their changes, we stop and think about why our choices matter. Here, for readers whose eyes have not yet glazed over, are some examples from my recent experience.

The copy editor’s take on “may” and “might” was different from mine. He chose “may” for present tense and “might” for past tense, a simple rule that makes consistency easy to achieve. My search through several usage guides showed that the distinction between the two words can be more subtle than that. I opted for subtlety. Since the history I am writing is not thoroughly documented, I sometimes had to speculate or conjecture about what “may” have happened. What “might” have happened sounded either conditional (what might have happened if such-and-such were the case) or more certain than I felt, as though just a bit more evidence would show that what might have happened did happen.

Sometimes my decision about the copy editor’s correction was meant to preserve historical accuracy.  For example, he broke the compound word “buttermaker” into “butter maker,” in accordance with his style book’s general rules. I use the word to denote an occupation that arose after the invention of the cream separator, when farmers in Freeborn County, Minnesota, began organizing cooperative creameries. The word that shows up in newspaper accounts of dairying at the turn of the last century is the compound “buttermaker.”

Some quibbles are about word quality.  The copy editor questioned my use of the word “spinster,” which is often used pejoratively. I enjoy reclaiming old words for women that originally had positive or neutral connotations. A “spinster” was not an abject, unloved “old maid,” but an unmarried adult woman, a maiden aunt, with significant responsibility for her family’s well-being. As the word for her indicates, she could often be found at the spinning wheel, doing essential, productive work. She had dignity, and so should the language used about her.

Sometimes justice moves us to break the rules. The proper way to name people that the Canadians call First Nations is disputed here in the U.S. Some prefer Indian or American Indian, others Native American, and others specific tribal names. Because I was referring to such people before Europeans arrived and imposed names on them, I chose to use “Native people.” (When I knew the tribal names, I used them.) The rule is to leave “native” lower-case, but I wanted their status in my book to be equivalent to that of the European settlers, whether Yankees and Yorkers born in the U.S. or Norwegian and Danish immigrants, all of whom get capital letters. I capitalized Midwestern throughout for a similar reason.

Copy editing is no easy, sure-fire undertaking, for either editor or author. Perils abound. No matter how carefully we choose words and construct sentences, readers may still misinterpret or even misread. An Amazon.com reviewer who didn’t like Beyond Good Intentions wrote that I said I was “weery” of the growing popularity of international adoption. I think the reviewer meant “weary.” What I had written, however, was “wary.” We can’t be too wary or too careful.

So that’s what a copy-edit is. ( This post could use some copy editing.) I passed yet another milestone this past Tuesday, December 15: I met the marketing team to begin planning the distribution of The Big Marsh, which will be published May 1, 2016.  And now I’ll sit tight and wait for page proofs in January.

3 comments to What’s the Copy-Edit?

  • bruce Jones

    Cheri – Your blog sheds light on the editorial work Dee has done for decades. I appreciate your lucid, balanced description of the role of copy editor. (I also enjoyed the comments about “rules are not always absolute” which confirmed some of my beliefs when we teachers would edit each others’ writing.)

  • In April 2014 an interview about you and another writer on Minnesota PBS led me to your website. Your article “Writing is Scary” was so compelling I read more…and today as I am about to start my second book (my first a memoir/fictionalized memoir is waiting for me to sort out some issues with family) I found myself reading “What’s the Copy-Edit?”. Thank you so much for your inspiration and guidance. I have another passion: painting so time is precious, but you inspire me to blog my writing. Forever grateful!

  • With “What’s Copy-Edit” you have made the business of editing even clearer for me. The editor for my first manuscript had said that I didn’t need a copy editor. Now after reading your article I agree with her even more.

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