20 June 2010

Thoughts on Copy Editing

I got up early to gather all the materials for a class I'm teaching. I'm giving them quite the packet, from an outline to a recent essay to notes on proofreading marks and examples of proper formatting. And it got me to thinking that the use of proofreading marks is probably on its way out, what with all the emailing manuscripts back and forth. I know my book came back with a list from my editor and copy editor, rather than marks in-text. And I had to send back another list. (Saves the editor on mucked up formatting.) I really only use the marks on my critique work, which for my group is written by hand. But a basic knowledge is still helpful, not just for the marks, but for what the marks accomplish--what a copy editor might change or note in your work.

We don't edit either of those ways at Electric Spec. First of all, we have no separate copy editors. Secondly, we don't have that kind of time (all editors are busy; we justify it as a valid excuse by not getting paid). We just make the changes and then show the writer. I've only ever had one writer fuss over that--mostly about my not using track changes. I responded that a writer should know his or her own story backwards and frontwards after all the revisions they usually require. This is also the same writer who sent me a story rife with mistakes. (I call it dirty copy.) At the time, years ago, the story was good enough to deal with dirty copy. Now it wouldn’t be.

Frankly, the odds are in our favor that we can find stories that are great AND have clean copy. But it got me to thinking on how I know if a story will work for me without barely reading it. One of the ways is whether the copy is relatively clean. Mistakes often pop up right away with writers who don't put in the effort to create really clean copy. I don't mean perfect. I mean generally clean. It's like someone dusted and vacuumed before I stopped by. It shows a measure of respect for your editor.

Grammar and spelling and punctuation are the nails and wood glue that hold your story together. They're communication signals to a reader, and that's what we're trying to do when we write, at our basest, is communicate. To an editor, they're a quick, handy way to signal that you care enough about your craft to master the nuts and bolts of communicating in the written word. That gets us hoping right off that you've mastered the art of storytelling, as well.

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