Copy Editing: Process

Posted: May 17th, 2011 under Editing, the writing life.

A visual look at how I work with copy edits.

This is the kitchen table, on which is spread a clean dish towel (just in case the tablecloth has a grease spot–it was clean Saturday, but this is Tuesday.)   The kitchen table is the only unoccupied (sometimes) clean (mostly)  flat surface in the house to which I can bring a chair (the drafting table is not at all comfortable for checking copy edits.)

To the left, the box with all the copy-edited manuscript sits on a kitchen chair, in easy reach to access more pages.  Above, on the left, is the Chicago Manual of Style, open to the pages of proofreaders’ marks (yes, it’s held open with the salt shaker.  So?)  Next to it is a copy of the book before this, to check continuity.  Lopping over onto that (and on the right) is the only dictionary that will fit on the table with the other books and also stay open by itself.  Usually.   This constitutes the reference shelf for the work.   If necessary, I pad back down the hall to the study and pull out one or another style books or grammar books, but usually this gets the job done.  Oh–the letter from the publisher describing their preference in how pages are marked by authors is under the Chicago Manual of Style, not visible in this photo.  Sometimes I need to check with it, in the heat of battle, to be sure I’m allowed to do what I just did.

On the clean dish towel are the pages being worked on: to the right, the pages I haven’t finished yet and to the left, the pages I’ve checked and marked if necessary.   Those I’ve marked are placed sideways, because they’ll all be re-checked later to be sure I still like my choices.   I work on only a hundred or so at a time, as it’s uncomfortable to work with 800-something at once (the pile is too tall.)  Two mechanical pencils (one with, one without, an eraser) ensure a sharp point, as requested by the publisher.

I check every mark on the page except the ones pertaining to formatting the page, font size, etc., which are the province of the book designer.   I don’t know what most of those marks mean, and don’t care.   What I care about are marks affecting the text, and so every one requires a look.   CE’s marks are in red.   Copies (since Editor works in plain pencil) of Editor’s marks are blue.  I leave the blue marks alone or consult with Editor.   The red marks, however, are mine to STET if I feel it necessary.   Sometimes I leave them.  Sometimes I don’t.

And now, back to work.


  • Comment by Naomi — May 17, 2011 @ 9:41 am


    As the French would say, ‘courage’!

  • Comment by Linda — May 17, 2011 @ 4:39 pm


    Sounds like a military operation … and I dare say that your task requires that sort of precision and concentration. I am reminded of any number of your characters and their combination of single mindedness and attention to complex detail. The apples don’t fall far from the tree. I love reading about daunting problems conquered by worthy protagonists. Onward!

  • Comment by Beth C. — May 17, 2011 @ 5:15 pm


    Yeesh. It seems like such a daunting process. My agent will be sending my novel on sub soon, and the prospect is terrifying and thrilling all at once. Is the Chicago Manual of Style the standard for the marks? If so, I should probably acquire a copy…

  • Comment by Kip Colegrove — May 17, 2011 @ 8:55 pm


    In re the salt shaker holding open the Chicago Manual of Style: Salt is an old symbol for wisdom. That’s the background for the saying of Jesus, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In the elaborate “high church” baptismal rite the priest places a bit of salt on the lips of the person being baptized and says “Receive the salt of wisdom.”

    So it makes perfect sense to me to keep one’s work space salted with wisdom.

    I continue to pray for your ailing husband and his busy wife.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 17, 2011 @ 9:56 pm


    Naomi: Working on that.

    Linda: It is rather like that. I find it easier to do the precision-detail thing when it’s all mine and I have plenty of time. When I’m trying to cooperate with someone else, and time is short, it’s…trying.

    Kip: In choosing an object of the right size and weight to keep the book open…I chose salt as a reminder of wisdom. Not surprised you caught on…GGG.

  • Comment by Rolv — May 18, 2011 @ 2:28 am


    Love to see these glimpses of how you are working. I’m currently situated on the other side of the table, being in the process of editing two books. (But not as exiting ones as yours, they are both of the academic kind. I still find them interesting, and hopefully someone will even buy and read them. :-))

    One problem I’m facing is that I didn’t manage to finish them before I changed my job,. so now I’m doing it in my spare time … Another is that it’s not so easy to make 10+ authors adhere to the same format, not to mention avoiding all kinds of fancy additions to the manuscript that has to be deleted anyway. A third is that the books are in English, not in my mother tounge.

    Your blog entries radiate with your love of your work, and gives me encouragement in mine.

    Still with you in prayer.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 18, 2011 @ 7:44 am


    Rolv: Editing two books at once in your “spare” time, working with multiple authors, AND not in your native tongue…wow! I’m sure it’s difficult, and equally sure they’ll be excellent when you’re done. May I ask what the books are about?

  • Comment by Rolv — May 18, 2011 @ 8:15 am


    Thank you, that’s the nicest piece of flattery I’ve received for a looooooong time. 🙂

    Both books are theological, in the discipline of missiology, and will be published in Oxford, UK.

    One is on mission and postmodernities; part of a 20+ volumes series, a study process initiated to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the influential world mission conference in Edinburgh, 1910. I’m definitely no expert on the subject, but have worked on pooling together those who are. It’s exciting – and at times frustrating. It indeed seems that I will be able to send the whole manusxript to the publishers some time in June.

    The celeberation and preparations were memorable in themselves, a major ecumenical milestone; it’s hardly happened before to have Roman Catholica, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, African Independent Churches, Conservative Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants working so closely together with official sanctions from their respective bodies.

    The second book is dealing with Norwegian mission to China until 1949. It was supposed to be ready by 2007 …

    Sorry for the long-winded answer …

  • Comment by Alaska Fan — May 19, 2011 @ 12:09 am


    I don’t see the bottle of aspirin?

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 19, 2011 @ 7:02 am


    I don’ t know if the Chicago Manual of Style is still the gold standard with publishers–that’s something you can ask your agent about–but the marks it shows still work for my publisher. The thing to watch out for, with manuals of style, is what they were set up to cover and how often they update. I still have an (outdated now) copy of the Council of Biology Editors Style Manual from the 1970s, giving the (then) correct forms for citing references when writing articles for scientific journals. We used the CBE (as we called it) to write our papers in grad school. The footnote style there is very different from the footnote style required for papers the humanities (some of them use the Modern Language Association stylebook, the MLA, but I think some use the Chicago Manual…) A publisher may have a stylebook that varies slightly (usually by eliminating alternatives) from any of these.

    But no stylebook can cope with the variations on usage needed by fiction writers. The information our writing contains goes far beyond the dictionary definitions of the words–to spell everything out in words bores readers, annoys them. So we need every punctuation mark the keyboard can make, and we need freedom to use them to enhance the reader’s experience by showing (for instance) whether someone’s speech is swift, slow, halting, fluid, placid or suffused with strong emotion. Where correctness interferes with the story’s life–it is not correct, but pedantic, to obey the rules. Fiction is language’s off-road vehicle.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 19, 2011 @ 7:04 am


    Since my husband was in the hospital last week after losing half his blood to a GI bleed caused by aspirin and other related medicines…and I have enough heartburn already from the copy edits themselves….there’s no aspirin on the table. The bottle of antacid there, but on the kitchen counter.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — May 19, 2011 @ 8:03 am


    Why do you have to do this on hard copy? I would think that even this would have been computerized – nothing printed out until the final book printing.

    I hope the husband is doing better and slowing down.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 19, 2011 @ 9:11 am


    AVERT! I hate, loathe, despise trying to edit electronically. It is MUCH easier to do it on paper. It cannot be a fast process: it requires time and attention to do it right. That’s the trouble with a lot of TrackChanges-edited stuff: it’s so easy and so fast to make a change…it becomes rushed and thoughtless. And fixing something that TrackChanges has been used on is a PITA for me, because I can’t see the clear flow nearly as well. The colors, initials of who did the changes, etc. are all in the same lines, in the same font, and interrupt my visual scan of the original text….they’re in the way.

    Some writers don’t seem to mind, but many of us do–and I’m one that absolutely HATES TrackChanges for fiction. Blech, arg, yuck, stinking goo on the ground, NO.

  • Comment by Jim DeWitt — May 19, 2011 @ 2:53 pm


    Ms. Moon, I apologize for my aspirin comment. I was unaware of what caused your spouse’s hospitalization. All NSAIDs carry a risk of GI bleeds; aspirin may be the lowest risk but it is still real. My attempt to be amusing backfired. Again, my apologies.

  • Comment by Chuck — May 20, 2011 @ 8:01 pm


    I feel much the same way about using change tracking. Even when I use it (as when the author of a technical paper I’m editing has continued to make changes to his copy even though he sent me the file to edit), I print it out along with a copy with tracked changes hidden. I’m firmly convinced that even the people most comfortable with reading things online will miss more when proofing online than they will using a printout. Editing should take even more time than mere proofing or things will be missed. The reading eye has too much capacity for reading what it should see rather than what is really there.

  • Comment by Jonathan Schor — May 21, 2011 @ 6:22 am


    Re Editing electronically – sorry for hitting a sore spot. As I have remarked often, since you do the work, you call the tune. Just don’t overwork.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 22, 2011 @ 2:44 pm


    You couldn’t know. Some people like TrackChanges. Some people think it’s nifty-swifty.

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