Sign up to the newsletter

Publishing Interviews: The Copy-Editor

Author Claire Fuller sits down with copy-editor Caroline Pretty to discuss her role in the publishing process. 

Claire: How would you describe the role of a copy-editor?

Caroline: Once a manuscript’s been typeset, it’s expensive for publishers to correct mistakes, so the main focus of my job is a close reading of the manuscript before it gets typeset. I’m editing primarily for sense and consistency. Sense is about making sure the author has conveyed what they intend, without repetition or ambiguity (unless this is deliberate). Consistency involves checking spellings and punctuation, following a publisher’s house style or an author’s preferred style; in fiction, it also includes checking plots for any holes, making sure the action can realistically take place in the time the author has outlined, and character details such as names, ages and eye colour. There’s often a lot of fact-checking too, and I also mark up the typescript for the typesetter – coding headings and different design features. So it’s very much a technical process as well as a creative one.

Claire: What’s your copy-editing process from when you receive a book from a publisher, and do you work on paper or onscreen?

Caroline: Most publishers prefer copy-editors to work onscreen, so I typically use a Word document with tracked changes. When I first receive a manuscript, I scroll through it to remove any formatting, code up chapter headings and apply basic house-style elements, such as single quote marks. Then I read the first chapter to get a sense of the author’s style – it can also help to read a sample of the author’s previously published work to really understand their writing. I contact the author to introduce myself and raise any general queries, and then I start the detailed copy-edit in earnest. Often I send the author the first copy-edited chapter, so that they can check they’re happy with the level I’m working at. When I’ve finished the copy-edit, I send the whole thing to the author to check, together with my detailed queries. Once they return the document to me, I then check everything to see if their replies raise any further questions. Finally, I send it to the publisher, along with a style guide for the proofreader and a list of the design codes for the typesetter.

Claire: How long does it generally take?

Caroline: It varies a lot. With some books, I might correct every sentence; with others I might make a few corrections per page. So my speed ranges from three to ten pages of double-line-spaced A4 per hour. A novel of 90,000 words will take on average fifty hours to copy-edit.

Claire: What do you like about copy-editing?

Caroline: In no particular order: the detailed nature of copy-editing, becoming completely immersed in the world of the books; working with authors to help make their books exactly what they want them to be; the sense of completion when I finish a project; and I really value the opportunity to read a wide range of books that I wouldn’t ordinarily consider – novels in different genres, non-fiction on a variety of topics and, a personal favourite, cookery books.

Claire: I’ve often wondered about cookery books. How much does the copy-editor do?

Caroline: Someone else tests the recipes to make sure that they work and that the quantities are correct. It’s my job to make sure that the instructions in the method are succinct and easy to follow, that the style of measurements and so on is consistent, and that the ingredients are listed in the same order as they’re used in the method. Cookery books can be a consistency minefield, but they are very rewarding to work on, especially if you love reading recipes — and cooking from them!

Claire: Is there anything you dislike?

Caroline: I work from home, so I spend a lot of time by myself in front of the computer. It isn’t something that particularly troubles me, but it does mean that I don’t want to spend any extra time doing the same thing: I’ll avoid writing long emails or endlessly browsing the web. As I spend each working day reading, my reading for pleasure also suffers somewhat. And the work itself takes a huge amount of concentration: it can be mentally exhausting when I’m working on a book with a tight schedule.

Claire: I find it quite hard to read books now without noticing how they’re put together, what decisions the author made. Is it the same for you? Can you read for pleasure without copy-editing?

Caroline: When I start a new book, I can’t help copy-editing as I read, noticing which decisions the author has made: punctuation usage, style idiosyncrasies, and so on. But I read for pleasure much more quickly than when I’m copy-editing, so I do eventually relax and just enjoy it.

Claire: Do you edit poetry or experimental novels? I imagine it must be very difficult with these to work out which things are mistakes and which the author intended.

Caroline: I sometimes edit poetry for Five Dials magazine, and although I haven’t copy-edited an experimental novel, some of the books I’ve worked on have contained passages that are more experimental in style. In those cases, I make general queries about anything I’m unsure of so that I’m not making any unnecessary corrections. It’s not always clear whether something is intentional, so sometimes you have to query everything

Claire: I’ve certainly never had this problem with my two books, but do you think it’s possible to over-copy-edit?

Caroline: I think that a copy-editor has to be very careful not to apply their own stylistic preferences. It’s really important to be sensitive to the author’s choice of language and the decisions they’ve made, and if you’re suggesting changes because something isn’t clearly expressed, it’s your responsibility to follow the author’s style. You have to remember that it is the author’s book, not your own.

Claire: In your 15 years of copy-editing have you noticed any general changes in language or writing?

Caroline: Nothing particularly significant springs to mind. I find that people are using fewer hyphens when modifying nouns, for example, but it’s really only those sorts of small details. Authors tend to write very carefully and deliberately, so issues that crop up because people in general are writing less formally and conversationally (especially through email usage) don’t tend to apply.

Claire: Can you tell me anything about you and your job that would surprise readers of this interview?

Caroline: The biggest surprise for most people is that all the different aspects of the process that I outlined above have to be done in one go because of time constraints: as I read, I’m simultaneously considering everything from punctuation to plot lines and everything in between.

Claire Fuller is the author of Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons. Visit her website here