11 September 2023

Blessed be the copy editors, for they save our bacon.

I count among my greatest natural skills the ability to misspell, hack up syntax and transpose letters, words and sometimes whole sentences and paragraphs.  I’m not only very good at injecting these viruses into my prose, I can disguise them from all but the most discerning copy editor.  I also have a considerable knack for getting dates mixed up and scrambling places, directions and physical descriptions.  These things are generally categorized as continuity problems.  I create continuity catastrophes. 

(In the film production business, continuity people are second only to the director and DP on a film set. Since movies and TV shows are usually shot out of chronological order, someone has to corral the orderly march of events. “Stop the action! George’s tie needs to be cinched up. Meryl’s hair is sticking out of the bonnet again.”)

It's a mental problem. Which is why I’m utterly devoted to, and dependent on, copy editors. These are not proofreaders, who have their own value, but editorial professionals who bridge the terrain between proofreading and developmental editing.  The really good ones are worth their weight in gold.

They not only repair spelling, grammar and syntactical errors, they make sure the lake in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is near the right town, the blonde side character is blonde through the whole book, that a guy born in 1975 doesn’t knock off a bank in 1986, that an interstate goes through and not around a city, the French name for a particular delicacy is common in Paris but not in Montreal, and so on.

It’s astounding to me how many things I can get wrong, and how talented copy editors are at putting things to right. The bad guys speed away in an old Buick in chapter two, and by chapter ten they’re in an Oldsmobile. A character born on the South Side of Chicago is later reborn in Memphis, Tennessee. Don’t even talk to me about except or accept, heel or heal, peak or peek, then or than – and the worst, by far – affect or effect.

I just talked to a writer who said she had typo blindness. She can read the same page a hundred times and not see the mistake sitting right there on the page, and the copy editor will swoop right in and fix the problem.  I totally get this, and I think it’s your brain telling you everything is fine after you’ve looked at the work a few times, or a few million. You actually see the mistake as correct, and no subsequent review will make it otherwise. 

The skillful copy editor is also mindful of your writing style, and is respectful of your creative choices, knowing the difference between a colloquialism and a gaffe. They tend to pose potential corrections as questions, not mandates. There’s nothing worse than a copy editor who’s a grammar tyrant. A school marm who insists on classical style and usage. I once had one of these people remove all my contractions, entirely eliminate passive voice and slang, and fill out sentence fragments, even in the dialogue. They’re worse than having no copy editor at all.

I did not appreciate it. No, I did not.

I write a series and have written two trilogies, where it’s invaluable for the copy editor to know your characters and the world they inhabit, to check for deviations from prior works. These observations don’t always result in simple corrections. More often, they provide a path to a better product. I’ve found with revisions, one good thing often leads to another. It sometimes makes me wonder if I kept revising the book would it continue getting better. But then again, you have to eventually let it go. Put the pen down, accept what you got.

Or is it, what you have?


  1. I can feel the regret and the reward, and I agree, their contribution is invaluable. A character in one of my stories changed names within a matter of paragraphs. Not only did I miss it, but so did the editors. Dale Andrews spotted it long after it was published.

  2. Yes, without copy editors, this sort of mistake can happen: (ad paid for by my publisher and advertised widely) ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD. All sorts of hilarity ensued. Does Rowena leave the all-powerful mage in her epic fantasy series to become a small town baker in a romance novel? sigh...

  3. Oh, Melodie, what a great example!
    Yes, I will take all the help I can get from copy editors, as long as they recognize that my dialog is an attempt to make you hear someone's voice, complete with rhythms that aren't grammatically correct.


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