Four good things that come of having the copyeditor liaise with the author

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[4 minute read]

Some of my clients just want queries raised in comments and then I never see the manuscript again, whereas other clients have me deal directly with the author(s) to resolve all queries and hand back files that are complete and ready to typeset.

I much prefer the second procedure. It’s more fun for me, as I get to talk to the authors about their work and build relationships (and from those relationships, new business can grow), but for publishers and pre-press companies, far more important than the impact on me and my business is the improvement in the quality of the product.

Here’s why:

1: All the knock-on changes are made

Suppose the query is about a reference (and frankly, most of them are). I’ve already got Smith and Jones 2018 in the book, and it’s been cited three times. Fine. But there’s a citation of Jones and Smith 2018, too. I’ll query that: should it be Smith and Jones, or is a reference missing? The answer comes that it’s Smith and Jones 2018 – but not the one we already had.

So now I have Smith and Jones 2018a and 2018b. Therefore I:

  • update all the citations – all three Smith and Jones 2018 to 2018b, the Jones and Smith to Smith and Jones 2018a (because alphabetically the new reference precedes the one we already had)
  • update the references list with the new reference, positioning it correctly
  • update the original reference
  • style the new reference correctly.

And I do that every time one of these queries comes up – which is fairly often, in my experience.

If someone less familiar with the book takes in that correction, there’s real risk that the new reference will just be added to the references list, and the author order switched in the troublesome citation. Result: reader confusion and frustration, and the author looks a bit of a plonker.

In a different scenario, a date on a reference is changed, and the style of the book is to list sequences of parenthetical citations in ascending date order (or the author name order is changed, and the sequence is alphabetical – you get the picture). All the affected citations then have to be checked and fixed where necessary. If a desk editor is taking in all these changes at speed, there’s a real risk that some of these additional steps will be overlooked.

2: Depth of knowledge of text enables answers to be assessed

When I’ve copyedited a text, I’m left pretty clued up as to what it’s doing. Many’s the time I’ve had a response to a query come in and thought, ‘But that doesn’t accord with what was said two paragraphs earlier… hmmm…’

Now, this will go one of two ways with the copyeditor. The answer needs to be changed in some way (even if it’s only inserting or removing the word ‘not’), or the other bit of the text needs changing. So I go back to the author and work out what’s going on, and we sort out the text between us. Result: relieved author.

The third way, of course, is for a harassed desk editor to just take in the answer and move on to the next.

To all the talented and assiduous desk editors out there: I know you exist! But I also know that you’re rushed off your feet. So let the copyeditor take some of the strain and effort from you.

3: New material is properly styled

The prime candidate here is, of course, references, but changes to any element of the book require proper styling (and/or tagging, if that’s being used). A list is amended, a value in a table, a legend in a graph, details for a caption… There’s a real temptation just to import the new material and have done. This, of course, applies mostly to the references, but in any place, an important change is, more often than not, going to stick out like a sore thumb at proofs or, worse, just get missed and get printed that way.

I know that when the text comes to me, it’s meant to be finished, so far as the author’s concerned, but it’s a rare job when the author doesn’t ask me if they can make one or two little adjustments. If I can, I’ll take them in – it’s easier and cheaper than at proofs stage, though I don’t let authors take liberties.

Those new little bits of text are then properly styled ready for typesetting, seamlessly, thanks to the copyeditor being on hand. New material brought in when comment-queries are answered is always going to be more of an issue.

4: Misunderstandings are cleared up and the correct adjustments made

We know that authors aren’t sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for queries to come in, then lavishing hours on researching the answers. They’re squeezing in answering queries between the gazillion other things they’re juggling. And so, sometimes they don’t read the question properly.

An instance from a few years ago has stuck in my mind. Diving into a rabbit hole of quotations, pinpoints and references, I’d established that the author had conflated two adjacent chapters in an edited collection. It was easy to see why – the authors of those two chapters had the same first and last names, but one had a middle name: they were different people (and they were adjacent! Volume eds, have a heart!). We had the title of one chapter and the page range of the other. The chapters were on different topics, however.

A quotation pinpoint fell outside the range of the chapter in the references. Amazon’s Look Inside, every editor’s friend, didn’t have the relevant pages, nor did Google Books, so I was stuck. Thus the query was raised.

My author was adamant that the chapter was exactly as referenced – she was clearly working at speed and couldn’t spare the time to get the book out of the library and actually look at it. The third time I went back to her, sure I was right, she did head off to the library to prove her point and shut me up … and she saw what I’d been banging on about. She came back with the necessary information, we separated the references into the two different things they were and I sorted out the citations. And I got the correct pinpoints.

I’m very careful about the way I raise and present queries, to try to avoid any confusion, but sometimes, people behave in a human way and don’t get it right first time. The copyeditor is best placed to sort out the occasions when it all gets a bit wonky.

And if queries are to be raised in comments?

I work this way, too, and find that with some queries, I’m leaving messages to remind people that if the answer is X, then these other things will need to happen but if it’s Y then this other thing needs to happen. Sometimes they’re for the author, sometimes they’re for the typesetter, and I just hope the desk editor is able to be on top of it all.

In journal production in particular, I find my comment has an AQ [author query] to, oh, supply a missing table caption, then an instruction to the typesetter to style that new bit of text in a particular way. It’s messy and it invites slip-ups, but it’s the best I can do as I can’t be there myself to ensure it’s all done correctly – the workflow doesn’t allow it.

In summary

So there you are – if the copyeditor takes in the author’s answers, then the knock-on changes are made, whether that’s shunting references around, styling the new material, spotting the answer doesn’t fit well in the context, challenging the author’s answer and enabling the little tweaks that keep the author happy and the book quality high.

If the desk editor takes in the author’s answer – well, maybe all of that still happens. Great. But the copyeditor has the time and bandwidth to handle all this as part of the project and is more likely than a desk editor to have the familiarity with the text and the calm space in their day to draw together all the loose ends into a nice big bow.

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