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Copy-editors: Cruel to be Kind

Updated on March 8, 2013

Once authors have revised the content of their novels through their readers, agents, and editors, copy-editors take their manuscripts and tear them down … in order to build them up.

This is a copy-editor's job. Publishers pay them to do this. It’s how they pay their bills. These people take their jobs seriously. They are the guardians of diction, grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure. And until the advent of the “Author Track Pages” feature on Microsoft Word, copy-editors kept the 3M Company solvent by purchasing Post-It Notes in bulk, notes they attached enthusiastically as often as they could to the average manuscript.

The average copy-editor

Think of the most evil English teacher you’ve ever had, throw in the family member or relative who washed your mouth out with soap for butchering the “Queen’s (or King’s) English,” and cross-pollinate those two with Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker from Batman, and you have an idea of what makes a copy-editor tick.

Copy-editors are on a search-and-destroy mission … to repair your work. And trust me, they take no prisoners, hear no whining, and accept only your apologies. They are, of course, rarely wrong, and they delight in chronicling your mistakes and making corrections according to The Chicago Manual of Style, a 1,000-page tome I think many copy-editors have memorized.

At first, I thought copy-editors existed to make my writing sing. My first copy-editor was wonderful. He even sent me a lengthy fan letter. I don’t think copy-editors send fan mail that often. He guided me along, caught several minor gaffes on my part, offered excellent suggestions, and smoothed out my writing’s rough edges. He told me he enjoyed working with me, and I returned the favor. Wow, I thought. Copy-editors are my friends.

I was so naïve.

Malevolence personified

My subsequent copy-editors, however, have been malevolent, harsh, unfeeling, and cruel. Yes, I know that it’s their job to be “cruel to be kind” to improve my novels and I do appreciate them when I go over the proofs and see spotless copy, but sometimes they go too far. In general, these copy-editors comment on everything, and I mean, everything. Here is just a sampling of what copy-editors have done for me:

  • They have mapped and re-mapped distances my characters travel, as if readers might hate my book because I was a few miles or kilometers off in my measurements. “Your readers might notice this oversight,” one copy-editor wrote, “especially readers who live in that area of southwestern Quebec.”
  • They have suggested different TV shows, musical artists, books, magazines, and movies that my characters might enjoy. “She should probably watch WB shows,” one wrote. “She doesn’t seem like the NBC-type.” Another said, “Why would she read that magazine? That’s too trashy for her. She should be reading Cosmo.
  • They have offered their ideas of style and fashion for my heroines: “She wouldn’t wear those shoes with those pants, not in a million years,” one wrote. “And she definitely needs a new hairstyle to go with those earrings.”
  • They have written lengthy timelines of my novels down to the day, hour, and minute. Even I don’t do that. Their timelines, however, eventually mirror my own general timelines.
  • They make lists of every character in each of my novels, looking, I suppose, for characters with similar or the same names. A modern copy-editor would have raked Tolstoy over the coals for his overuse of the names “Maria,” “Dmitri,” and “Mikhail” in War and Peace and “Pyotr” and “Katerina” in The Brothers Karamazov.
  • They have pointed out certain restaurants and businesses that no longer exist. Well, they did exist when I wrote the book two years ago. Then they go on to suggest new restaurants where my characters can dine instead.
  • They have tried to inform me about pregnancy testers, tampons, PMS, and all things “female” since I am a male writer of multicultural romance. “Even the best over-the-counter pregnancy tests don’t give results that quickly,” one wrote. One copy-editor even suggested a different brand of curling iron since the one I chose wasn’t a very good brand.
  • One copy-editor described in detail the systematic process for entering Canada by private plane and told me how Customs Officers really behaved. She told me I had it wrong in my novel. She recommended that I completely revise the scene since it was “unrealistic.” I merely had Canadian Customs officials come onto an airplane to check passports. My bad.
  • Another fussed at least a dozen times about a diva actress wearing sunglasses at night. Divas do that, I told her, and especially at night.
  • Several copy-editors have tried to put Northern words into my Southern ladies’ mouths. Um, I countered, they are in the Deep South, you know. Others have written, “She wouldn’t have said it that way.”
  • A few have tried to school me on what wine goes with what main dish, and one told me that oregano is not a Greek thing … when it actually is.

Of the several thousand “queries” (those dreaded Post-It Notes) that copy-editors have affixed to my manuscripts over the years, I have made about three hundred changes for the betterment of my novel. Most I blinked at, considered for a moment, and discarded. Yes, writers have the final say no matter how many Post-It’s there are.

A necessary breed

Are copy-editors necessary? Absolutely. They make you check and re-check your work. They help you fix what you missed. I sometimes think they proofread the local newspaper daily just for fun.

Do they have to mark everything? Probably. I think publishers pay them according to the number of proofreader’s marks they use.

Do I look forward to copy-editors tearing into my work in the future? No.Sometimes a trip to the dentist is more enjoyable.

Am I happy when the process is over? Oh yes, but not because the process is completely disagreeable. I’m actually content because with a thoroughly copy-edited novel in hand, I know that my novel is truly ready for the reading public.


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