Before Copyediting Starts

Before I copyedit a manuscript, I make sure I know the answers to a few key questions. I have found that by identifying certain facts about a project, I can be more effective and efficient in my work.

The first questions I want to answer are basic background to the book:

  • What can I learn about the author?
  • What are the book’s genre and audience?

In answering the first question, I try to learn whether and what they have published before, either in the subject area or outside of it. For example, if they previously published a book, I may be able to find it online and be able to read a summary. If I’m lucky, perhaps I can read a sample from it to start familiarizing myself with the author’s style.

For the second, keeping the genre and audience in mind helps me with everything from flagging problematic word choice to verifying citation style choices. Copyediting a scholarly book on World War II intended for historians is a different task from copyediting a book intended for military history enthusiasts of wide educational backgrounds.

The next set of questions typically arise for books from traditional trade and academic publishing houses:

  • Is there a house style guide to be followed?
  • What other style or usage guides are required?

For most manuscripts that come across my computer screen, I use The Chicago Manual of Style, which is in its sixteenth edition. Some of Trio’s clients also have a house style guide, which can supplement or contradict some of Chicago‘s principles. I own a few other style manuals that become relevant for particular fields, such as the style guide of the American Psychological Association (APA) for books in psychology and other social science fields.

My other go-to resource for just about any project is Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage—an indispensable guide for making decisions like when “due to” should be replaced with “because of” or the like.

The last question I want to consider is the following:

  • What are the audiences of this manuscript’s style sheet?

I create the style sheet in the process of copyediting the manuscript, and as I do so, I keep in mind the roles of the people who will see the style sheet in its final form. There are always at least two members of the audience: the author and the proofreader.

The proofreader will use the style sheet to help confirm things like hyphenation, spelling, and capitalization of terms. Most people think of the proofreader as the primary (or, mistakenly, the only) audience the style sheet addresses.

The author will have the style sheet to refer to as they review the copyediting. What I know about the author (when I answered the first question) will be relevant to what I decide to include in the style sheet and how I explain my decisions. For example, if I know the author is more familiar with AP style, I might write in my cover letter, explain in a query, or add to my style sheet some explanations of the differences between AP and Chicago style (e.g., serial comma, number treatment).

Other potential audience members, depending on the publishing model, the process, and the genre, include the project manager, the designer and/or typesetter, and the indexer.

In many traditional publishing companies, a project manager (who may have a title like managing editor, production editor, project editor) oversees the copyediting and may review the style sheet before sending it to the author. If the audience includes the project manager and/or the page designer, including in the style sheet the text elements found in the manuscript can be helpful. Typical text elements include subheadings (often referred to as A, B, C, etc.), indented quotations, numbered lists, captions, and table titles.

Finally, if the book will have an index, the indexer (if it isn’t the author) should be sent the style sheet along with the page proofs of the book. That way terms in the index will be treated consistently, in line with their appearance in the style sheet.

You can read more about Trio’s approach to style sheets, and see some examples, here.

Answering four basic questions about a manuscript before starting to copyedit ensures that I have good preparation for the work ahead. I know something about the author, the book’s genre and subject area, the style and usage guidelines I will be following, and the audience I’ll keep in mind as I create the style sheet. This knowledge improves my editing efficiency and efficacy, benefiting me, the author, the other people involved in the publishing process, and ultimately the book.

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