Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Inside the Twisted Mind of a Copy Editor

By: Marie Force, Guest Blogger

Remember the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!"? For copy editors, our mantra is “Oh, the Stuff You Have to Know." I tease my husband for being like Cliff Clavin, the mail-carrying know-it-all on Cheers. Like Cliff, my husband knows a little bit about a lot of things—most of it what I categorize as “worthless knowledge." If only you could get paid for knowing a little bit about everything... But wait... You can!

Copy editors are the last line of defense on all things written. We proof newspapers, magazines, and books for accuracy, consistency, grammar, and sentence structure. It’s our job to know, for example, which four states are commonwealths (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—and we like to show off what we know). We’ve got the inside track on redundant phrases such as “general public" and know that something doesn’t become “annual" until it’s been held or done twice. Being a generous species, we’re always pleased to bring these interesting factoids to cocktail parties and social gatherings.

And where do we get all these rules? In the style manual, of course. I remember my first copy editing class in college when the professor said we were going to talk style. Oh cool, I thought, imagining I was in for a discussion about Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. I soon found out he meant publication style. In the journalism profession, the Bible is the AP Stylebook, published by the Associated Press. The publishing world’s Bible is The Chicago Manual of Style.

Within these style manuals are answers to just about every question a writer or editor could have. Are there periods in a.m. and p.m.? How do I write a date? Do I spell out numbers or use the numeral? Sounds trivial, right? Well, it sort of is, but think about it—if you have twenty different writers on your staff and each of them are doing these things in a different way, your publication descends into chaos. It’s the job of the copy editor to keep that from happening.

In my day job, I’m the editor-in-chief of a national trade publication that focuses on government financial management. When I started 13 years ago, I knew nothing about accounting, auditing, or financial management . No problem, my boss at the time said, and he was right. Words are words. I may not always understand them—although after all these years, I understand them better than I ever thought I would—but I can tell if they are presented incorrectly. It’s my job to make sure the words are accurate and consistent from one issue of the magazine to the next.

One of the first things I did when I got the job was draft a style manual for our publications that we follow to this day. Do I refer to it often? Nope. Why? I know it by heart after all these years. I like knowing it’s there if I need it, but because I eat, sleep, and breathe the rules it contains, I don’t need to check it all that often. So why have it? Because three other people work with me in my department, and I don’t expect them to be as anal retentive as I am. They use the actual document much more than I do.

Copy editors are compulsive by nature. I find at least one error in almost everything I read. Even dinner at a fancy restaurant can turn into a menu proofreading session. I edit street signs, maps, and, well, everything I see along the way. I can’t help it. According to my husband Cliff Clavin, I’m an irritating companion on road trips because I can’t shut off my need to edit. I could argue that at least I’m not spewing factoids about the largest ball of twine in the world...

I offered up two MS copy edits to Brenda Novak’s auction, thinking they’d generate a couple hundred dollars for diabetes. Well, they raised a couple thousand dollars. I was astounded that they went for more than some of the agent and editor offerings. I had no idea there was such a demand among authors for copy editors! This led me to hang out my copy editing shingle for romance writers only, combining my love of all things romance with my compulsive need to edit. I’ve included a link to my website below where you can find more information.

As a writer, this compulsive need to get it right makes for some interesting challenges. I learned early on that I need another set of eyes on my work. My friend Paula, former employee of a publishing company, copy edits all my MSs for me, and I’m always amazed by what she finds. Mistakes that are obvious to me in other peoples’ work are invisible in my own. However, Paula tells me my unedited manuscripts are cleaner than some of the stuff she reviews at galley stage, proof that my compulsion is paying off while driving me slowly insane. This is the so-called “blessing" of being a trained copy editor.

Speaking of galleys... The proofs for my debut novel, “Line of Scrimmage," are sitting here waiting for my attention. I realized last night that I’ve been riddled with anxiety since they arrived. What if I miss something? How will I stand to see a real, live error in my book? This is the curse.

Here’s the shameless plug for “Line of Scrimmage," out on September 1 from Sourcebooks Casablanca: In the Hail Mary play of a lifetime, a sexy NFL quarterback has just ten days to convince his wife to give him a second chance before their divorce is final—and he has to act fast because she’s already engaged to her high school boyfriend. Read an excerpt on my website at www.mariesullivanforce.com.

Thank you to Marilu for inviting me to blog, and I’ll happily answer any questions your readers have about grammar, style, or editing. If I don’t know the answer, I guarantee my husband Cliff Clavin will.

Marie Force is an editor by day and a romance writer by night. She lives with her husband and two children in Rhode Island. Her debut novel, “Line of Scrimmage," will be out on September 1, 2008. Find out more about her copy editing services for romance writers at www.mariesullivanforce.com/MSFManuscript.php.
You can also find Marie at:


Marie Force said...

Thanks for having me, ladies. I am sleepless in Rhode Island, so I figured I'd check in.

Stephanie said...

It's so good to know there's other editors out there like this! LOL My family and I go along about our daily life and I randomly point something out saying, 'That's so wrong' and for some reason they just roll their eyes at me. I simply cannot understand it! I just want their use of the language to be correct. Haha!

Thanks for sharing.

Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy said...

Hi Marie!

Taking time out from my own galleys to say, "Great blog post!" I don't think I fully appreciated the efforts of a copy editor. Like most, I think I only notice when they miss something.

LOL on your DH being Cliff Clavin. I'll bet he's a killer Trivial Pursuit player.


Marie Force said...

Thanks Stephanie! Yes, we are out here doing our best to keep the written world as clean as possible!!

Cindy, my DH is killer at Trivial Pursuit. His late mother used to accuse him of sitting at home reading the cards while the rest of the world was out partying. LOL! He's also a total NERD at Scrabble. Kicks my arse every time and then reminds me which one of us went to journalism school!!

Christina Harlin said...


As usual you have provided an interesting and informative blog. How cool to know all that stuff! Have you ever tried out for "Jeopardy"?

Your pal from Sourcebooks Casablanca,

Marie Force said...

Hey Christina! Thanks for coming by. My head hurts from having to keep it all straight!!

Samantha Hunter said...

Marie, loved this, since I am a freelance editor for technical trades, and recently doing white papers. While I know editing helps me write more sharply these days, I also know I am horrible at editing my own work -- so I do have someone look at it for me. I also have to be careful not to "over edit" -- you know, especially when I am editing magazine articles, the journalistic instinct is to pare, and I think I lost about 20 pages out of a recent wip while editing over the last few weeks, LOL. At least I replaced it with better material, but still...

Cool blog, and congrats on doing so well in the auction! I like editing short stuff, articles and white papers, etc but would never do a book.


Marie Force said...

Hey Sam,
Thanks for coming by! It's nice to know I am not alone in my obsession! You can appreciate the differences between editing technical articles, magazine articles or news stories. For one thing--no Oxford comma in AP style, but there is one in Chicago style (that's the comma before the and in a series for those playing along at home who don't speak this strange language). So by day--no Oxford comma. By night--Oxford comma. if you think that doesn't make the old head hurt... LOL

Looking forward to blogging with you guys on the Cigar!

Ashlyn Chase said...

I'm the proud president of the New England Chapter of Romance Writer's of America for the upcoming year, and the Gods have truly blessed us with Marie as our newsletter editor!

My columns will make me look so much more edumacated than I really am!

Love ya, copy editor!


Marie Force said...

You are a doll, Madame President! Looking forward to your edumacation! LOL! Thanks for coming by.

Samantha Hunter said...

LOL Marie -- we're looking forward to having you come by Cigars, and it's fun to find other editors around. There are actually a number of romance writers who are technical writers/editors as well, which I find fascinating.

I taught technical writing for a while, but journalism I learned by the seat of my pants as a features editor. I picked up some freelance work, edited (or so I thought) an article, sent it to the ME, and he came back with WHAT IS THIS? LOL I had no idea about ledes, heds, etc... I know now. ;) Now I edit white papers for him as he struck out on his own.

I have to admit my brain enjoys the technical content -- it exercises different muscles. But yeah, switching back and forth can be a trick. ;)


Karen McCullough said...

Very interesting post. As a former, long-time editor for several trade publishing companies, I say, "Amen."

But...I have to ask about a usage that I see in your post and that I'm seeing more of in published works, the use of "couple" as an adjective rather than a noun.

My admittedly outdated version of the AP Stylebook says that when "couple" is used to describe a pair or more of objects, it always needs the preposition. Has this been changed in more recent style manuals?

It always bothers me to see "a couple hundred" or any usage of "couple" as an adjective. When reading it I have to mentally insert the "of" or it just doesn't sound right to me.

Marie Force said...

Great question--since I meant that to mean a hundred bucks each, I think it's okay the way it is. I am extremely anti-preposition as an editor, so I tend to leave them out more often than not. It's great to know there are other people out there who care as much about this stuff as I do. I'm afraid of like-minded folks reading my book! LOL!

EmilyBryan said...

Great blog post, Marie! Thanks for keeping the written world in order.

I know what you mean about random editing as you live your life. Mistakes in spelling on signs drive me crazy.


Marie Force said...

Hi Emily,
Thanks for coming by. Glad to know I'm not the only one editing the street signs!! :--))

Nancy said...

Wonderful blog, Marie!

I loved the copy editor who worked on La Vida Vampire - I learned so much from reading her edits! I hope I write a cleaner ms. for the learning process, too. :)

Huge congratulations on LINE OF SCRIMAGE! I'm looking forward to it - plus it'll be out as football is starting!

La Vida Vampire

Marie Force said...

Hi Nancy!
Yes, I am so excited that LOS will be out just as the new NFL season gets under way. I wish I could say that was all strategically planned, but it was more a matter of kismet.

Congratulations on all the great success you're having with La Vida Vampire!! Hope to see you at Nationals.l