A Plea for Old-Fashioned Copyediting
Okay, so I have a huge stack of paper sitting beside me with copy editor’s queries for my next book manuscript. For my first two books these copy edits were all done by hand, but for my last few books the copy edits were all done using the track changes function in Microsoft Word. This is a great loss.
While I do understand that track changes are more efficient, I prefer the old way of doing it. When your book is in the copy editing stage, this is your last chance to make any modifications before the manuscript is typeset into proofs. Copy editors are the last line of defense against typos, bad grammar, and awkward syntax. Copy editors can also help improve your writing, and really good copy editors will engage you on an intellectual level, posing serious questions and making delicate suggestions about my arguments and the evidence I have mustered to substantiate them.
The copy editor – a mysterious person whom an author will rarely meet – seemed so much more human to me when I could see their actual handwriting on the page. I took the time to learn all of those old fashioned copyediting symbols when I worked with Princeton University Press because my copy editor there, the indomitable Vicky Wilson-Schwartz, preferred working with them. She reviewed with my manuscript with the care and love of a midwife. My book was vastly improved for her ministrations. Vicky pointed out repeated words and broke up my run-on sentences. She argued that certain substantive endnotes could be moved to the text, and helped me sort through the tricky issue of finding the right terminology for a controversial concept.
Copy editors read a lot of books; they are experts and understand what works and what doesn’t work. When I received the electronic copy edits on my final chapters last week, I was delighted at the thought of editing my manuscript one last time with feedback from a professional. But alas, most of what I got were queries on my bibliography and formatting corrections to ensure compliance with the Chicago Manual of Style. Even though I explicitly requested a copy editor with a heavy hand, there wasn’t a single substantive issue addressed.
I suppose I could take pleasure in the thought that my writing has become so sublime that there is nothing to correct, but I know that to be false. I actually cringed at several badly written paragraphs in the first chapter. In my more cynical moments, I fear that the move to track changes has less to do with efficiency and more to do with cost cutting.
I know that the publishing industry is in crisis, and I imagine that all copyediting for United States-based presses has been outsourced to underpaid workers in foreign countries, or at the very least to harried freelancers who work on a piece rate.
In either case, my recent copy editors seem concerned only with doing the bare minimum to ensure that there are no egregious mistakes and that the manuscript conforms to house style. I can’t really blame them, but I do miss the publishing ecosystem wherein copyeditors contributed real value to our books and were remunerated accordingly.