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: