Good morning Margaret. We hope you enjoy your day here in Seekerville. We'll start out with some questions.
1. Can you tell us exactly what being a proofreader for a major publisher involves?
It depends on the publisher.
Some publishers send only a set of galleys, and want corrections directly on the galleys. (In case anyone doesn’t know, galleys—also known as galley proofs—are the printed version of a book, the way it will appear once the book is bound, except that the book pages are centered on loose [unbound] sheets of 8 ½-by-11 copy paper, to leave plenty of white space to the left and right for copy editing or proofreading marks or notes.) You can find examples of the marks at: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_proof.html.
Some publishers give a proofreader both the author’s original manuscript, which has been marked up by a copy editor, and the galleys; they want the galleys proofed, but they also want the proofreader to check the galleys against the copy edited manuscript so that a tally can be made to tell how many changes made have been due to printer’s errors (PE) versus author’s errors (AE). This is because, at the galley stage, changes can be troublesome and/or expensive to make. (Imagine the potential headache of repagination!)
And some publishers have proofreaders mark galleys without reference to PE or AE, but still send an electronic copy of the copy edited manuscript to the proofreader, in case there’s any question about what a copy editor may have changed or not. This is because a proofreader always works on a manuscript after a copy editor. The copy editor is supposed to catch any big problems with a manuscript (I’ll explain more about this in a bit), while the proofreader is supposed to clean up the little glitches in punctuation and grammar.
Some publishers want corrections to be made in ink, and some in colored pencil. Preferred colors—for ink or pencil—are generally green, purple, or red, but it’s always best for a new proofreader or copy editor to check with the publisher.
Many publishers do what’s called a “first pass” proofread, which hopefully catches any glaring errors that may have escaped a copy editor’s notice; the galleys get corrected; and then they do a “second pass” proofread, to be on the safe side and make sure that the book is as error-free as possible.
Both proofreaders and copy editors need to be respectful of publishers’ deadlines; both kinds of work typically involve a turnaround time of somewhere between two and four weeks per manuscript, maximum.
2. Can you tell us exactly what a copy editor does for a major publisher?
Some copy editors make changes directly on the pages of an author’s manuscript (usually in colored pencil); others receive a manuscript electronically (in a .pdf attachment to an e-mail, perhaps) and make changes directly onscreen. (That’s when you turn on “track changes” in a word processing program and mark changes and note queries directly on a manuscript as it appears on a computer screen.)
I’m definitely a hands-on-the-printed-page copy editor! More and more publishers—perhaps most, at this point—prefer electronic copy editing because it supposedly speeds up the publishing process. (No one has to manually input a copy editor’s corrections anymore—because the copy editor has already typed them in himself or herself.) I am the way I am, though, because a copy editor is supposed to catch big problems, along with punctuation and grammar flubs, and I just don’t feel that I do that as effectively on a computer screen as on a printed manuscript; and I know that I do a really effective job when I can sit down with the printed words on the page, a Chicago Manual of Style within arm’s reach, and a sharpened carmine red Prismacolor Col-Erase pencil in my hand! ☺
A manuscript comes to a copy editor once a book’s editor is satisfied that an author has fixed any big-picture issues that may have needed addressing, such as characterization or plot issues—the sorts of issues that are often addressed in a revision letter. A copy editor does consider more than the mechanics of grammar, spelling and punctuation, though.
Style is important. Did the author use the same adjective twice in the same short paragraph? One might get changed or even deleted, with a circled note in the margin that says “repetitive.” Do those three sentences work well together when split into two super-short paragraphs, or does the visual choppiness confuse the reader? Then a copy editor might make a squiggly sort of line from the end of one paragraph to the start of the next one and write a circled note that says “run in,” in the margin. In the end, a good copy editor works for a balance between maintaining an author’s unique voice and making a book easy and understandable (and hopefully pleasurable) to read.
Another thing that a good copy editor should do is keep track of characters’ names, physical characteristics, personal history, and story timeline. Copy editors make what is called a style sheet for each book on which they work; for a novel, a style sheet should minimally include characters’ names, place names, and the correct spellings (and pages at first occurrence) of any words they felt the need to look up. Style sheets may also include style notes, such as “Author prefers to use serial comma,” or character descriptions, as in “Marcie Jones, heroine, blue eyes, black hair (2).” (That “2” would be the first page on which she appeared.)
By referring to the notes on a style sheet, a copy editor can make sure that the heroine’s eyes, which were blue on page 2, don’t suddenly turn brown on page 63 (unless, of course, she’s trying to disguise herself by using contact lenses), or that it’s Wednesday the fifth on page 44 but Tuesday the fourth on page 45 (unless it’s supposed to be a flashback). A copy editor’s style sheet gets passed along to any proofreaders, who may then add to it or change it as they see the need. As with first- and second-pass proofreads, the creating and sharing of a style sheet is a way that publishers make every effort to create a well-put-together product.
3. What is the difference between the two and which do you prefer? Why?
Honestly, I can never decide which I prefer!
I’m a nit-picker, a real detail-oriented person. (You know that saying: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Right? Well, I do sweat the small stuff—especially when I know it’ll get into print.) For that reason, proofreading is a great fit for me.
Even though copy editors are also supposed to check the spelling of any word of which they’re not sure in a manuscript, I still check a lot of words in every manuscript I read. One of the most common things I find myself checking is whether a word is a closed compound (“backyard”), an open compound or phrase (“eye to eye”), or a hyphenate word or phrase (“good-naturedly”), as well as capitalization with common words that may actually be related to brands (such as “Kleenex,” which is always written with an uppercase K, and “saltine,” which is written with a lowercase s.)
My husband has sometimes called me the Comma Queen—but I go a lot lighter with the commas now than I used to (really!) because light use of commas is the current style. (In other words, only use them when grammatically necessary, as when introducing a quotation in dialogue.)
But then, every time I think, Man, I love proofreading! there eventually comes along a manuscript that someone else copy edited—badly. I’ve had manuscripts come to me that made me wonder if all the copy editor did was turn on spell-check and grammar-check and then correct all those errors. If that was sufficient, though, there’d be no need for copy editors in the first place!
I saw a poem used in the galleys of a historical novel once, and the former English major in me thought, This poem looks late-Victorian in style—but this story is set in the early-Victorian period. Uh oh—this would be an anachronism! The copy editor hadn’t picked up on this. I did some research and came up with an early-Victorian poem on the same topic, with similar imagery, with the same number of lines in length, and included a copy of the poem I’d found when I returned the manuscript to the publisher, in case the project editor wanted to make the substitution.
Another time, a copy editor had changed the spelling of a foreign word that was in the book’s title; I researched it, and then called one of my husband’s academic colleagues to verify my findings . . . before I told the production editor that, yes indeed, if the book was published with the title spelling changed as the copy editor had done, the foreign word would translate as “evil fairy”—but if the spelling was returned to what the author had originally had, the word would translate as “honored elder.”
It’s at times like those that I think, Man, I should’ve copy edited this one! I see fact checking as being part of a copy editor’s job too, along with making sure that there aren’t any plot holes—basically, anything that could create a big problem unless it gets rewritten before it makes it to the galley stage should be on a copy editor’s radar. And I do love the fact checking and minor style tweaking that a copy editor can do—and that a proofreader shouldn’t have the need to do.
4. Are these positions advertized publicly and if so, where do you find out about this kind of job?
I’ve never found one of my freelance reading, proofreading, or copy editing jobs through an ad.
I did some nonfiction freelance proofreading and copy editing when my husband was in graduate school, and built up my résumé that way. (I made cold calls to publishers and to businesses’ public relations departments to drum up those freelance projects.)
After we moved cross-country and started a family and I joined RWA (Romance Writers of America), I learned about freelance manuscript reading from a writing friend who’d done it for years. She suggested that I call a publisher’s production department and ask if they could use any freelance manuscript readers. I was interviewed over the phone, then sent a manuscript to write a summary and a detailed literary analysis of; I passed that test, and worked for that publisher for seven years.
After seven years of reading over-the-transom manuscripts that ranged from brilliantly written to depressingly bad, I was ready for a change. So I looked for publishers’ phone numbers in one of the writer’s market–type books and made cold calls once again—this time asking if these publishers of fiction could use any freelance proofreaders.
I quickly found a couple of publishers that were interested and that, after reading my résumé, sent me proofreading tests—which, again, I passed—and I’ve been proofreading and/or copy editing fiction ever since.
5. Do you find each publisher has their own set of copy edit requirements? Or are they pretty much the same?
Most publishers do have their own style requirements; if a freelancer—proofreader or copy editor—starts work for a publisher and doesn’t automatically receive a copy of an in-house style “bible,” they should ask if one exists. That being said, however, the most common references used are the Chicago Manual of Style (there’s a newly released 16th edition, but the publisher I’m working for these days still prefers the 15th) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the dictionary preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style), preferably the 9th or a later edition which includes the first known use of a word (which is very helpful for avoiding anachronistic vocabulary in historical manuscripts). Words into Type is an acceptable back-up reference.
6. I understand you are a writer as well. How has working as a proofreader and copy editor influenced you as a writer?
About a year after I started work as a freelance manuscript reader, I began to write a column, called “The Write Stuff,” for my local RWA chapter’s monthly newsletter. Having to analyze other writers’ as-yet-unedited (also, as-yet-not-accepted) manuscripts taught me a lot about what worked and didn’t work in romance novel writing; it almost felt like I learned by osmosis—suddenly I realized that I could focus on the parts of a story and understand what worked or didn’t work, and if it didn’t work I could often figure out a way to fix it. That was a revelation to me. Until then, there were times I felt almost paralyzed by the uncertainty of whether my writing was good or not, and how I could tell; but analyzing others’ writing taught me to analyze—and fix—my own. I continued my column when I segued from freelance reading to freelance proofreading and copy editing, and only ended it after ten years and sixty individual column articles.
Now I write occasional articles for my RWA chapter’s blog (http://www.rwanycblogginginthebigapple.blogspot.com/—or, if you’d prefer to read just my articles, which do tend to be writing lessons of sorts, they’re at http://rwanycblogginginthebigapple.blogspot.com/search/label/Margaret%20Birth).
These short nonfiction pieces provide a wonderful bridge between my writing and editing interests. I enjoy sharing the lessons I’ve learned as a freelance reader, proofreader and copy editor by writing about them.
But I also love to write my own fiction—and poetry. Besides having learned how to analyze and fix stories—whether someone else’s or my own—I’ve also developed an appreciation for trying to write a manuscript that is as nearly production-ready as I can make it. I make my own style sheets to go with my book manuscripts that I have in progress; I check my own spelling and grammar and facts and make notes about it on my style sheets. Perhaps better than anyone who’s only on the writing side of the desk or only on the editing side of the desk, I see fully what a competitive field publishing is—particularly in our current economy—and I understand that anything a writer can do to create an entertaining story that needs as little editing as possible is likely to be beneficial to the writer and to his or her editor and publisher.
7. Can you give us any tips to help us improve our writing?
Practice active reading. Pleasure reading is usually pretty passive. Active reading requires analysis. Even if you don’t make written notes, force yourself to remain aware of issues such as pacing, internal conflict, dialogue, and so on, as you read. If you like a book, ask yourself what specific characteristics lead you to feel that way. If not, what’s the problem, and how would you fix it? Get as specific as you can. Does the dialogue feel choppy, the pace rushed? Maybe it’s because the characters speak more in phrases than in complete sentences, and because most of the scenes are brief and filled with short paragraphs. Does the heroine strike you as too stupid to be believed? Maybe it’s because her actions are told about, but there’s not much physical description beyond that and no depth of emotion. Play editor and analyze books you read for their big-picture issues (plot, characterization, and so on); and play proofreader and analyze what works and doesn’t work in the mechanics at the sentence level. It’s far easier to be objective about someone else’s writing than it is about your own; by practicing active reading of other writers’ work, you can learn to be more objectively analytical when you look at your own.
Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not going to urge anyone to become a grammar and punctuation fanatic (unless, of course, they also want to proofread or copy edit!)—instead, I’m simply going to suggest that you write the best story that you’re capable of writing. Do your own research; verify your own facts; and turn in the neatest manuscript you can (mechanics-wise). This way, you’ll increase your odds of publication—and will make any proofreaders, copy editors, and editors you work with happy that they’re working with you.
Margaret Birth is a Christian writer who has been widely published in short fiction, short nonfiction, and poetry, both in the U.S. and abroad. Her short fiction ranges from the commercial (confession magazines) to the literary; her nonfiction is primarily dedicated to Christian devotionals and articles encouraging fellow writers to develop their craft; and her poetry has appeared in Christian magazines and literary journals, and was honored with a Pushcart Prize nomination in 1994. She also currently has a mystery novel with romantic elements under consideration at a publisher. She publishes her romance fiction under the name Maggie Adams and her literary fiction and poetry under the name Margaret Adams Birth. In addition to working as a freelance writer, she's spent over a decade freelancing for multiple publishers as a manuscript reader, proofreader, and copy editor.
Margaret and her husband love to order chocolate from Chocosphere.com. So we logged on and have a huge selection from their site to nibble on all day. And of course I have chocolate velvet coffee to sip on.