Why does my publisher insist on a copyedit? What’s its value?

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Short answer: because your text has to be prepared for typesetting.

Long answer follows.

From inception to publication

The writing

First, you had an idea for a book. Or maybe you didn’t – maybe you saw a call for book pitches, or were directly asked to write a book to fill a gap in a publisher’s list, or maybe you’re were asked to contribute a chapter to an edited volume, or you’re publishing your research results in a journal article.

So, wherever the initial impetus comes from, you go through the pain of turning the ideas in your head into a coherent, logical account in writing, fully referenced and possibly illustrated.

The reviewing

Then the peer reviewers say, meh, not so logical. Do all these other things to the text.

And you do – chunks of your precious writing disappear, new chunks arrive, chunks just move around. Chapter titles change, headings come and go.

Then the volume editor, or the series editor, or the desk editor or someone else with ‘editor’ in their title reads it again and asks for more changes. This process may be repeated several times. I’ve edited some journal articles that have been going back and forth for two years before they reach me. Books, similarly – or longer.

Then the day comes when the text is accepted. Joy of joys, you can stop revising!


The copyediting

Hello, I’m the copyeditor assigned to your text by the publisher. I’m now going to read every single character with one thought in my head (well, a gazillion thoughts in my head: my post on what copyediting costs, and why it does will tell you a few of the other things going on in my head ), but there is one main thought as I edit. And that thought is: do I believe it?

  • Do I believe that your point is illustrated in Figure 1.1?
  • Do I believe that Figure 1.1, in its beautiful pastel shades, will reproduce legibly in black and white?
  • Do I believe that you meant to reference Smith and Jones 2019 here, and
  • Do I believe I’ll find it in your references list?
  • Do I believe that the headings flag up the topics the text covers?
  • Do I believe that your percentages in Table 3.4 add up to 100%?
  • Do I believe the caption of Figure 2.3 is reflected correctly in your list of illustrations?
  • Do I believe this note marker is in the right place?
  • Do I believe this note is required, and wouldn’t fit seamlessly into the text to be one less irritation to the reader?
  • Do I believe this short title is not the first mention of that reference in this chapter?
  • Do I believe this full reference is the first mention of it in this chapter?
  • Do I believe I’ll find this acronym in your list of abbreviations, and that you’ve used the acronym consistently from now on?
  • Do I believe you’ve covered this term in your glossary?
  • Do I believe you’ve numbered your boxes in sequence?
  • Do I believe you’ve read and applied the publisher’s house style?

No, I believe none of it until I have proof.

And I gain that proof by checking everything. Everything.

At the same time, I’m making things ready for the typesetter/​designer. I’m removing your lovely styles and either replacing them styles from the publisher’s editing template, or I’m replacing them with tags. Your fancy typefaces are also gone. Your text will now be looking very dull, possibly full of weird markings and nothing like the finished product. And certainly nothing like you remember it.

At the same time as all that, I’m querying with you every point where my suspicious little mind found a discrepancy that I can’t resolve. Column 2 in Table 5.2 only adds up to 96.2%. Do some figures need adjusting, or should I add a note that rounding may mean percentages don’t sum to 100% in all cases? You have two Jones 2016s. I’ve now made this one 2016a and that one 2016b. Which is meant here and here? I have no idea what you’re trying to say in this sentence but it looks like a half-finished revision. How should it read, please? (I’m usually a lot more tactful than that!)

When you reply, I’ll update the text with those answers and make sure than any consequential changes are made.

Then I work through the entire text again, with a number of tests to ensure there’s nothing lurking in the woodwork that we don’t want ever to see the light of day. I may be renumbering a load of images, and moving them around to the right spots. I may be deleting fifteen references that belonged to a section that was cut. Or I may be moving those to a new ‘Further Reading’ section, because you don’t really want to lose them. I may be inserting sixteen references that should have been added when the replacement section was written.

And only then do I send the text and all the artwork files off for typesetting (together with all the other files a copyedit generates that feed into the workflow).

The proofreading

Next – proofs: the PDFs of the book returned to how it’s going to look, with all my tags or styles turned into the (almost) finished product. There may be a couple of go-rounds with this, too as you, and the proofreader (if there is a separate one, these days. Not a given, sadly), make the final adjustment and spot the things I missed (yeah, I’ll have missed something. I’m human), and that the typesetter goofed on (flipping an image, maybe, or setting a heading at the wrong level, a bad word break…).

The publishing

You made it! Your text made it! It’s out in the world!

But why is copyediting needed? Surely my text was fine?

It might be absolutely fine, but it probably isn’t. I’ve never had a book without author queries through my hands, and only rarely an article, but never one without errors – some tiny, most not-so-tiny – in the hundreds of books and articles that have crossed my desk.

That’s because you, the author, have spent such a long time producing and massaging the text that you can no longer see what’s on the page. And that is perfectly normal, totally natural and actually inevitable.

You can quickly get to the stage that you’re no longer reading the text, but remembering it.

Actually, you’re remembering what you meant to write, not necessarily what you did write.

So you need that fresh pair of eyes to winkle out the tricksy bits so they can be set right.

But even if your text, referencing and artwork were perfection, they wouldn’t be ready for typesetting unless you were incredibly disciplined about Word styles, or had learned to tag for the typesetter or designer. If nothing else, you need an intermediary to do that. In practice, as that intermediary, I will find a ton of things to fix or to raise with the author or publisher, from double spaces to missing permissions to factual errors.

And that, my friends, is the long answer.

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