O How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Copyediting Homily in One Very Long Act

12 May: I receive an email from Editor Reka letting me know that my copyedited manuscript is on the way.  I’ll have till 31 May to respond to the changes.  Heck, that’s ages from now.  No problem!  I spend the rest of the afternoon Googling “copyeditor’s marks” and sharpening my stetting pencil.

15 May: Still no sign of the manuscript.  But that’s okay.  I don’t anticipate too much in the way of changes.  I took four years of Latin – I’m a grammar nerd to the bone.  I skipped through my single set of revisions tickety-boo.  Copyedits?  No problem!

18 May: Still no manuscript.  Clock’s a-ticking.  I tinker with my historical note.  I have a glass of wine.

20 May: 3:15 pm: The manuscript arrives.  I tear open the envelope and flip to the first page.  It’s like a monarch slit his wrists over it – the margins are crammed top to bottom with the copyeditor’s comments written neatly in blue pencil.  Same with page two.  And three.  And. . . uh oh. 

3:34 pm: I’ve spent the last twenty minutes flipping crazily through 272 pages of text that have more blue marks on them than black and very quickly realizing that my copyeditor has taken me to school.  I’m horrified that another human being found this many potential changes in something I thought was really quite good.  And I have to respond to every single comment in some way, even if it’s to say “okay.”  Then I realize I have eleven days to turn this around.  Oh wait, make that nine.  I still need to mail the manuscript back.

3:36 pm: I am drinking another glass of wine.

3:50 pm: I have a plan.  I am more than slightly buzzed.  I have nine days to make these changes.  Counting today, and it’s 3:50.  That’s only mumblety-mumblety-math-goes-here 30 pages per day!  Counting today.  Hey, no problem!

23 May: I’m finding myself in the interesting position of having to defend words.  Now my inner history geek is fighting it out with my panicky writer geek, and I’m running words through the Oxford English Dictionary, trying very hard not to get sidetracked by the general awesomeness of the Oxford English Dictionary or write out etymologies in the margins.  This means I’m still on page 26.  No problem no problem no problem!

Not all of the pages look like this. Some of them have *more* bluelining.

25 May: I am working twenty-hour days between the Day Job, taking care of Chez J and running through the copyedits.  I have barely broken 100 pages.  I run on willfulness, adrenaline and black coffee.  I dream in blue pencil.  I vow to never to even mention my single round of revisions again or use the phrase “tickety-boo.”  The writing gods will not be mocked.

26 May: Reprieved!  Editor Reka says I can return the manuscript on the 31st rather than having it be due back in her hands on that day.  I resist the urge to spend the bulk of my advance on daily gifts of chocolate and Bushmills.

27 May: I finish my first pass.  All the easy changes have been made.  Now all I have to do is go back through and address all the difficult, gnarly changes I skipped until later.  Now it’s later.  Now we have problems.

30 May: I lose half a day when the upstairs toilet overflows, but as the incomparable Jeannie Mobley says, some deliveries can’t be postponed.

At least it was not *this* toilet that overflowed.

31 May: The copyedits are done.  I’m strung out, exhausted and wild-eyed.  I can’t think about the color blue without twitching. I try to find a padded envelope.  I’m out.  I start swearing like a dockworker in ominous monotone.  My husband rushes out and buys me one.  Out goes the manuscript, and I make obeisances to the writing gods.  In return for their favor, I offer these tips to you, that you may benefit from my pain should you ever find yourself knee-deep in copyedits:

* Read this.  (Heck, read it twice.)
* Have a glass of wine.
* Remind yourself that you don’t suck, and your book will be that much better when you’re done.
* Then read this.
* Then, if you were given no other instructions on what the heck to do with the manuscript, keep this page handy.  It’ll get you through most of the marks okay.

Thus ends our homily.  Go in peace.



Filed under Editing and Revising

20 responses to “O How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Copyediting Homily in One Very Long Act

  1. Wow, thanks for those brilliant resources, J!!!! I loved the first one, explaining why the copyeditor is as she is. I have them all bookmarked and ready for the day my copy edits arrive!

    As for your quote of my words of wisdom, I don’t remember saying that, but I’ll take your word for it. Usually if it is a quote about something slightly vulgar or off balance I can be held responsible. My own special kind of branding, I guess. sigh.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I remember the comment particularly well, considering what I was knee-deep in at the time. It made me laugh, which I truly, truly needed at that moment.


  2. Thanks for the heads up, J. I have saved your recommended sites for future use. Boy, it must have felt good the next day when you woke up to nothing more pressing than Chez J.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      The weird thing was that I buzzed around Chez J for at least a day afterward, unable to shake the feeling that I was *forgetting* something. Reminded me of studying for my eight-hour written exam in grad school. It’s some kind of mild, academic PTSD that completely impairs any linear thought for at least 24 hours.

      It was suuuuuure hard to focus on the Day Job the next day, I’ll say that much!


  3. Great post, and very timely, as my copyedits are due in four days. I plan on taking your advice, particularly bullet point #2.


  4. Every time copyedits arrive, I search the web for those lists of copyeditor proof marks. It’s part of the ritual.
    I don’t panic over copyedits at all anymore. Most of the tough decisions were made weeks prior. But with my first book I had a similar deadline, two weeks to do my copyedits input, then mail them back to my editor. I waited and waited for the package to arrive. Finally two days before they were due back in NYC, I found the package at the bottom of the mitten bin. One of the kids had signed for the package and laid it aside, never told me it arrived, and it got buried quickly. You can imagine my stress. I did the edits in record time, and sent it back almost under deadline. And lectured the kids about how we take care of padded manilla envelopes from NYC.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      On every day that followed my editor’s email telling me she’d sent the copyedits, my kid would come home from school and say, “Hey Mom, there’s a strrrrange package on the front step.” And I’d come clattering down and he’d grin and say, “Just jerking your chain.”

      After a few days I got wise to it and called down, “Ha-ha, wiseacre.” And he’d laugh and I’d laugh.

      Then he tried it again – “Hey Mom, there’s an envelope here for you.” And I called down, “Nice try.” And he said, “No, really.” And sure enough, there it was. Left on the porch for anyone in my monkey-knife-fight neighborhood to nab and make off with. At least it wasn’t raining!


  5. Cynthia Levinson

    I was breathless reading this post, even though I was sure you’d meet your deadline. Suspenseful AND informative–a great and rare accomplishment, especially for a blog. My first-round copyedits were more substantive than the ones you describe. So, I, too, have bookmarked “this,” “this,” and “this page” for the next round when I get to deal with # and -/.


  6. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Well, your timing is perfect, M’dear, as my copyedits are due in about a week. I wasn’t nervous at all. Now, I know better. Glad to have the wonderful resources you’ve included, though. Thanks so much! I’ll be referring to them and thinking of you (with all good thoughts, of course!).


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Due as in you’re expecting them to arrive, or due as in you need to turn them back in? With a week to go, I was in full panic mode. No one would come near me. Not even the cat. My husband and son left food outside the door and tiptoed away. I propped up the GDP of Colombia with the coffee I drank. It was intense.


  7. I’m supposed to get my copy edits this fall. Although I thought I had a basic idea of what to expect, I see now that what I thought was pretty far off the mark. I’m so glad I read this (and the other this’s) now.


  8. J. Anderson Coats

    Maybe yours will go ticke—whoops, better not jinx you.


  9. Pingback: O How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Copyediting Homily in One Very Long Act (via EMU’s Debuts) | Pages for Small Wages

  10. Pingback: Random things = post :

  11. Very enjoyable post. You sound like a lovely, careful, industrious author who takes a copyeditor’s marks seriously. (Okay, maybe a little too seriously…) Being both a writer and a copyeditor, I try to be sensitive in my remarks to an author, but the best way to prevent this kind of hyperventilated frenzy is for the copyeditor to give you a thorough sample edit and bring up those kinds of questions early that might tip you off to the kinds of things she’ll be marking. Nobody likes the type of surprise you got.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I have ten thousand kinds of respect for copyeditors. Mine was sweet, thoughtful and thorough, and she kept me honest. My big shock was the sheer volume of very tiny things to notice, consider and weigh. I know for a fact that the next draft I turn in will require a lot fewer of these sorts of changes, because now I know to make them in advance.


  12. I told my editor that I now have a renewed respect for copyeditors…mine actually made an index of sorts for things that needed to stay consistent throughout the manuscript. Mine was sent electronically, which sounds different from yours and others’ experiences. Thus, the only blue in mine were in the comments in the margins…the rest was red, red, red!

    Glad you survived, J. 🙂


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I’ve heard about those types of indices and character lists and nifty little things. I got a big ol’ stack of paper and a deadline. My librarian-fu saved my bacon for sure.


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