Interview with a copyeditor

Copyeditors are a writer’s last bastion of defense against typos, inconsistencies, and plot holes. The book’s editor is the primary reader, but she or he is generally looking at the larger field of battle: is there a slow part that could be trimmed? Are some of the characters flat? It the plot stale and in need of oompf?

But when the editor finishes, the typescript is turned over to the copyeditor, who is paid to be a tyrant, to be the pickiest reader in the house. Anything a nit-picking reader will object to in the book, the copyeditor will object to before it gets between covers: There is no typo too small, no chronological oddity too minor that it doesn’t fall before the almighty green pencil.

My publisher, Bantam, has so far resisted the complexities of electronic editing, although I’ve seen manuscripts printed with wavy lines, strike-outs, and the like that are generated by editors and writers with more technological savvy than yours truly. Some day Bantam will convert to software editing, and the screams will be heard across the land.

But in the meantime, it’s all done on a single copy of the manuscript: the editor makes her comments and corrections in regular pencil, the copyeditor in one color of pencil, and the writer the final layer or remarks in another color. It is a palimpsest of editorial comments, a dialogue between the author and her primary readers, and the writer ignores the words in the margin at her peril.

The copyeditor for Touchstone was Madeline Hopkins, and since I’ve talked about the process several times (if you’re interested, you can find them under the category “Touchstone” over on the right) I thought it might be interesting to hear from the other side of the process. Madeline was generous enough to agree to an interview, so here she is:

Madeline Hopkins first entered the publishing world over a decade ago as a temp at a weekly thoroughbred racing magazine and worked her way through most of the facets of magazine and book publishing at a variety of companies in several different cities. For her thirtieth birthday, she decided to give herself the gift of a freelance career, so she left New York for Lexington, Kentucky, and the life of a copy editor and yoga teacher. She works out of her home and can’t start the day without her alligator coffee mug and faithful gray dog.

LRK: First of all, can you say something about the business of copyediting? How you got into it, how long you’ve done it, whether you are free-lance or work just for one publisher, if you enjoy the job?

MH: I have been a full-time freelance copy editor for about four years. Before that I worked for a publisher in New York and did a little freelance copyediting on the side. I still receive the majority of my projects from my former employer, but I work for other publishers as well. It’s a dream job for me, I get paid to read and I can wear my slippers to work!

LRK: When I wrote to ask if you’d do an interview, you responded by saying that you’d looked at the blog and, although you liked the garlic recipe, “your side” was woefully underrepresented. Jesting aside, do writers in general regard copyeditors in an adversarial light–that you’re the spoilsport who ruins their gorgeous prose?

MH: I don’t think it’s necessarily an adversarial relationship; I simply consider myself a careful reader. All authors are a bit different, but I think their primary focus is always on telling the story, and some are downright relieved not to have to worry about spelling and grammar while others resent any green marks on their pages. However, after a few rounds of editing, tweaking, etc., the manuscript needs the sharp eye of someone who is reading it for the first time and I think most authors recognize that, even if they don’t agree with the copy editor’s suggestions.

LRK: When you copyedit a book, are you also to some degree reading it for pleasure? And conversely, when you read a book for pleasure, are you distracted by copyediting mistakes?

MH: Yes, and yes. I love to read but I am always a little put off by typos, inconsistencies in the plot, or abandoned minor characters. I feel that part of my job as copy editor is to spare all like-minded readers some grief when they eventually buy the book.

(The interview continues Wednesday.)

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  1. nkk1969 on October 8, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    Are you just posting the rest of the finished interview on Wednesday, or is there an opportunity to ask Ms. Hopkins a few questions to be answered in the next installment?

    As a mother burdened, er, umm, blessed with The Grammar Goddess for a child, I’d be very interested in picking a copy editor’s brain for hints and suggestions on educational options, places to look for internships, and general advice for the next generation of wannabe editors.


  2. Teresa on October 9, 2007 at 9:12 am

    I was glad to see this interview with the copyeditor, and to learn that Bantam still does it by hand, so to speak. I am one of those persons who marks up her copy of the book as she reads, correcting typos and other minor errors along the way. Recently I discovered that my elder niece also does this. She lives in SF, clear across the continent from me, and frequently I send her books that I’ve read and enjoyed. After the first one, she wrote back and told me she had loved it, but that I had left her very little correcting to do. Apparently, she enjoys making the corrections, whereas I find it a bit of a pain that I have to. Anyway, I look forward to the rest of the interview, and the next book.


  3. annie on October 10, 2007 at 1:55 am

    Almost off the point: yesterday on the BBC there was an interview with children from a Cornish school (about their school lunches – they were very appreciative). Too late now for your research – but you would have loved the accents!

  4. […] here last time around with Madeline Hopkins, Touchstone’s copy editor, beginning here– –and I imagine the process this time will be much the […]

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