An American Editor

June 29, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part I

by Carolyn Haley

As the final step in my exploration of subjectivity in editing, I conducted another experiment. The first experiment was to see what would happen when editors were asked to edit sample text with no direction beyond “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” Seven professional editors volunteered, and their edits showed a range of approaches from light touching to heavy recasting. I discussed the results in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I, II, and III.

The second experiment took the opposite position, and asked a different set of independent editors for their specific definitions of copyediting. Nine volunteered. Their replies follow, continuing into Part II of this essay. Part I begins with an evaluation of their definitions filtered through my direct experience as an independent editor and author.

To give the editors’ responses some context, I requested data from each person, such as years of professional editing experience, clientele base, area of concentration, approximate percentage of business comprising copyediting, country of residence, variant of English used, and a sampling of editing-related software tools and reference resources. I also invited clarification of what copyediting isn’t.

As I expected, the respondents’ descriptions ranged from simple to complex. But all revolved around the common denominator I had hoped to see: a focus on the mechanical aspects of editing — spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, continuity, consistency.

The mechanical focus suggests that any author seeking copyediting can have the work done by any copyeditor. But as the nine descriptions show, there are variations in style and approach that make finding a good fit between author and editor more than just a spelling-and-punctuation game.

Elements to consider

For an author or publisher seeking to hire an independent copyeditor, the first line of distinction is the logical one of whether they edit fiction or nonfiction or both. Another selection criterion might be language bias — meaning, for writers in English, whether an editor works in American, British, Canadian, Australian, or some other variant of the tongue, or handles translated material, or works with people for whom English is a second language.

Authors and publishers might also consider an editor’s area of specialty and style of approach. These are, in my experience, the most common “match” criteria. Novelists often seek editors with experience in their genre. Nonfiction writers often seek editors knowledgeable about the topic of their book. Subject aside, authors divide in personality type. One author might want an editor who is superfocused on details and formal language, whereas another author might want an editor who is open to creative interpretation and won’t micromanage the author’s prose. The possible author–editor matchmaking combinations are myriad.

Some authors and publishers want to know about an editor’s toolkit. In my survey, all nine editors reported that they use only MS Word for electronic editing, with one editor still working primarily on hardcopy. Six editors use a mix of editorial software tools (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s Toolkit 2014, PerfectIt, macros) to enhance their accuracy and consistency. Everyone’s reference resources correlate with the publishing area they serve.

In the area I serve (mainly independent and especially first-time novelists), the topic of reference works rarely comes up. The authors seem to assume I’m working within universal and arcane parameters known to the publishing industry and will apply those “rules” to their work. Few authors are aware that there are different dictionaries and different style guides, and they don’t appear to care as long as the editing is consistent and editorial explanations make sense. My clients expect me to know what to do; that’s what they’re paying me for. Consequently, I don’t advertise my constantly growing reference library beyond a short statement on my website. I do, however, list on my style sheet for the project the reference works I consulted for the job. On the two occasions a client has shown interest, we’ve discussed and agreed to which reference works to employ.

Things are different when I work for publishers. The project editor specifies which dictionary and style guide the house adheres to, and often defines the copyediting tasks they expect me to cover. I duly comply.

In my survey, all the American editors named Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11) as their primary dictionary (except one who didn’t answer that question), with the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., as alternate. All the Americans also named the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., as their general style/language guide, with some editors mentioning the AP [Associated Press] Stylebook, the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The sole British and handful of American-British editors listed one or more of the Oxford and Hart dictionaries and style guides. Individuals then included a sampling of other works pertinent to their specialty. The fiction-only editors listed fewer reference works than the nonfiction editors.

The fiction-only editors were also less detailed in their copyediting descriptions than the nonfiction-only editors. Whether this represents a valid pattern can only be determined by a survey on a much larger scale. What matters here is that each editor gives potential clients a snapshot of their approach and personality. The information helps authors and publishers swiftly narrow down a wide field to a short list of candidates for their jobs.

Whether a given editor is a good editor, or the right editor, can only be determined through follow-up actions between author and editor: their dialogue, a sample edit, and, ultimately, the project itself. But editors who offer a profile help themselves and compatible prospective clients find each other, while reducing the risk of surprises that could negatively affect a project or relationship.

Nine definitions of the same thing

What follows is the survey respondents’ actual text, verbatim save for some condensing. It answers only the question, “How do you define copyediting?” I’ve included each editor’s years of experience, specialty, and English variant for context.

These descriptions, however, only have meaning when matched against an author’s expectations and desires. The number of possible combinations seems endless, so for this essay I’ve created a hypothetical scenario that views the editors’ descriptions from the perspective of a fiction and a nonfiction author, each independent and unpublished. The nine volunteer editors’ descriptions that I received through private solicitation are assumed for the scenario to be material on professional editors’ websites found through a Google search.

A view through the fiction lens

The editor-shopping fiction writer John Q. Novelist (JQN) is a software engineer and zealous science fiction/fantasy reader who has written his own sword-and-sorcery epic and thinks it’s ready for editing. His family and friends have told him the story is wonderful, and he dreams of great reviews and cash flow, especially if he expands the book into a series. All he wants from an editor is to correct his spelling and punctuation errors, point out any content goofs he’s unaware of, and help prepare his manuscript for publication.

Somebody in his writing group put a name to what he’s looking for: copyediting. So he uses that as a keyword in his online searches. He knows there are different kinds of editing but doesn’t fully understand the fine points of distinction between them. Since he’s researching a task, he doesn’t think to add “fiction” or “novels” to his keywords, so his search on “copyediting” returns an enormous list of websites and articles. The first three editors who offer a definition of copyediting are these:

Editor #1 (18 years, mostly fiction, U.S.)

[Copyediting is t]he correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.

Perfect, thinks JQN. He can send this person his manuscript for tidying up, then be on his way to fame and fortune. But Editor #2 offers more details, so, curious, he reads on.

Editor #2 (5 years, fiction, U.S./U.K.)

Copyediting is targeted at fixing elements of sentences, addressing correctness rather than artfulness of expression. Copyediting focuses on elements such as detail and description consistency (making sure the hero’s eyes stay the same color throughout, a house doesn’t grow an extra bedroom, if a character is standing on page 10 they aren’t said to be rising from a chair on page 11, etc.), grammar, correct word usage (such as die vs. dye), punctuation, adherence to a style guide or a publisher’s house style, fact-checking minor details such as business names and historic dates, formatting elements like text messages and letters, flagging potential copyright and legal issues, and more. The editor will make nearly all of the changes within the manuscript, not the writer.

Even better, JQN thinks. Exactly what he needs. This person must know what they’re doing. But, good grief, look at how long the next one is! What more could be involved?

Editor #3 (10 years, nonfiction, U.S./U.K./Can.)

I [derived these definitions]… from the Bay Area Editors Forum.… At all levels of copyediting… the copyeditor corrects errors, queries the author about conflicting statements, requests advice when the means of resolving a problem is unclear, and prepares a style sheet. The copyeditor may also incorporate the author’s replies to queries; this work is known as cleanup editing.

Light Copyediting (baseline editing)

  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may).
  • Checking specific cross-references (for example, “As Table 14-6 shows…”).
  • Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization.
  • Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists and other displayed material.
  • Recording the first references to figures, tables, and other display elements.

A light copyedit does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or changing heads or text to ensure parallel structure. The editor checks content only to detect spots where copy is missing. A light copyedit may include typemarking.

Medium Copyediting

  • Performing all tasks for light copyediting.
  • Changing text and headings to achieve parallel structure.
  • Flagging inappropriate figures of speech.
  • Ensuring that key terms are handled consistently and that vocabulary lists and the index contain all the terms that meet criteria specified by the publisher.
  • Ensuring that previews, summaries, and end-of-chapter questions reflect content.
  • Enforcing consistent style and tone in a multi-author manuscript.
  • Changing passive voice to active voice, if requested.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements.
  • Typemarking the manuscript.

Heavy Copyediting (substantive editing)

  • Performing all tasks for medium copyediting.
  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Assigning new levels to heads to achieve logical structure.
  • Suggesting — and sometimes implementing — additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.

The key differences between heavy and medium copyedits are the levels of judgment and rewriting involved. In a heavy copyedit, the editor improves the flow of text rather than simply ensuring correct usage and grammar; may suggest recasts rather than simply flagging problems; and may enforce a uniform level, tone, and focus as specified by the publisher or developmental editor.

Wow! That covers everything JQN could possibly want, and breaks it into clusters with different price tags. JQN now starts thinking about cost-benefit ratio and how far his budget will stretch. He’s sad that he can’t spring for heavy editing, it sounds so helpful, but at least he knows what his dollar will buy for light and medium. But wait — in rereading the page to evaluate his best choice, he notices what he missed on first scan. This editor only handles nonfiction. Drat! So he refines his search terms in hopes of finding a fiction editor offering the same level of detail and clarity.

Part II of this essay covers a nonfiction author’s response to the remaining six volunteer editors’ descriptions of copyediting, followed by a summary of the subjectivity studies.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

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