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Copyediting: Get your red pencil out!

The UPS man handed me a typical UPS shipping box last week with a surprise inside—the copyedited manuscript for my upcoming book, CHOCOLATE & VICODIN (in stores February 2011)!


It is certainly thrilling to see my book printed on paper and adorned with a cover letter on official publishing-house stationery. It makes me realize that the Word document I’ve slaved over for so long is soon going to put on its best clothes for its coming-out party at bookstores. However, it also means I have to review the copyediting, which is by far my least favorite part of the publishing process. I am not detail-oriented by nature, and copyediting is all about details. I’ve trained myself to be more detail-oriented in my work because it’s a necessary skill, but it’s definitely something I have to work at. It doesn’t come as naturally to me as other things.

By the time you get to copyediting, you’ve already submitted your manuscript and completed any revisions requested by your editor. The book is then printed, double-spaced, and given to a copyeditor who will make you feel like you failed second-grade English. But you should be grateful for your copyeditor because s/he will make you look much more skilled with the nuts and bolts of the English language than you actually are.

The copyeditor marks up your book with lots of proofreading marks, which look like Egyptian hieroglyphics, or occasionally like the new Geico mascot:

Proofreader's marks or the Gieco logo?

The copyeditor makes grammatical corrections and also points out any logical errors or contradictions in your text. For instance, mine pointed out that marijuana and hash aren’t necessarily the same thing. Good to know! S/he also marks what part of the text is italicized, bolded, and set in other styles, which helps the book designer typeset the book properly.

Because I only encounter professional proofreading marks once every two years or so, I had to search Google for a guide. I found a helpful PDF here and printed it out. After that, I had to spend about 9-10 hours rereading the book critically, making sure no typos were overlooked and that I was okay with any corrections. This is a bit more difficult when a cat keeps jumping on your lap, threatening to scatter hundreds of unbound pages randomly across the floor. The fun bit is that they sent me green pencils so all my marks were color-coded. My editor’s marks were in blue and the copyeditor’s were in red, so it was a colorful mishmash of grammatical goodness by the final page!

I also try to learn from my mistakes, so I found the Grammar Girl website extremely helpful. It explained several trouble areas for me, including:

Much to my happiness, I wasn’t marked up for any errors with the past subjunctive tense! Woo-hoo! The copyeditor on my last book schooled me on that one, so now I know to say “If I were taller, I’d be a baller,” instead of “If I was taller, I’d be a baller.”

I also learned that it’s not okay to use “OK.” Use “okay,” okay? But you can use “OK” in notes to the author in the margin, which is okay because “OK” is shorter, okay? There were also several two-word phrases that I thought were compound words, and several compound words that I thought were two-word phrases:

Compound words that I thought were two-word phrases

Two-word phrases that I thought were compound words
Love seat
Slide show
Hard core
Health care
Boom box
Land mine
Voice mail (though my phone disagrees on this one)

Sprint says it's voicemail

Chocolate & Vicodin: My Quest for Relief from the Headache that Wouldn't Go Away
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Lanie • September 17, 2010 at 8:29 am

Congrats on the upcoming book! I can’t wait to read it!


Keri • September 17, 2010 at 9:46 am

I’m excited about the new book. Congrats!
I’ve learned a few things about the compound words… and voice mail also. I thought it was one word as well.
Well have fun!


Cynthia (It All Changes) • September 17, 2010 at 11:30 am

Congrats on the book and I LOVE this post. I’m working on my grammar since I do more speaking than writing. I am off to Grammar Girl as we speak/type and book marking this for you fantastic tips.


The Merry • September 17, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Should I mention that it’s the subjunctive mood not the subjunctive tense? Or should I exercise that ‘tact’ thing that people keep telling me about?


The Merry • September 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I’m very glad that you’re past the copyediting part :)

Mind you, once it goes to print some of the typos will re-appear :(


Debbi Does Dinner Healthy • September 17, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Can’t wait to read it! I started homeschooling my 3 kids a few years ago and I’ve learned a bunch about grammer. I still use it horribly though. You could probably give me the book that you originally wrote without the copy editing and I wouldn’t know the difference!


Sheila • September 17, 2010 at 2:29 pm

As a former English teacher, I am delighted on the rare occasions when I encounter someone who actually cares about grammar. For that alone, I hope you have a bestseller!


Leigh Bedford • September 17, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Great post! As a librarian, I love stories about publishing and books and writing. Thanks for sharing.


Nina • September 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm

I don’t think I’ve read a book or a newspaper, magazine story without noticing several spelling or grammatical errors! Just to be a pick ass or is that pickass, I noticed in your list of compound words: lunchtime has an unusually large gap between, lunch and time, ie lunch time! Freudian slip I am sure, because you were probably getting hungry, by the time you had gotten to that stage of your post!
Fast typing fingers make for lots of unintended typos, I am a Moderator on a Diet Forum and have to hold myself back from editing the members posts! I try to only jump in if it ends up being a rude word or a particularly glaring booboo!

Good luck with your new book, I know how much effort it takes to get all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted! I’ve been asked to proof read (could be compound) several manuscripts and your eyes tend to cross over (might be compound) on a regular basis! I’ll be putting in my order as soon as you give the word that it is time to do so!


Kendra • September 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

I love hearing about the publishing process, expecially since I’m hoping someday when I finish losing my weight to turn it into a book too.


Debby • September 17, 2010 at 7:11 pm

LOVE this post and am beyond gleeful that this book will be out soon. Have a great weekend, PQ!


Kim • September 17, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I can’t wait to get the new book. Your first book is one of my favorites.


PastaQueen • September 17, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Aw, you guys are sweet. It means a lot to me that so many of you are planning on buying the book already. Thanks!


Lydia C • September 17, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Loved this post! You’re singing my song; I’m a copyeditor. Most of my work deals with older male authors, and they really are quite mixed up about the “that/which” thing. I mostly leave it alone, since I know it feels good to them to use “which” even with restrictive clauses. And the particular audience for these books expects the writers to sound this way . . . pompous!!!!


Natalie • September 17, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I’m an editor/copyeditor! Yay for editors! We rock.


Jane • September 17, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I loved your post. It was very interesting and informative for those of us who are “frustrated writers.” …can’t wait to read your book!


lg • September 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Good luck with your new book! Educational post for me, and embarrassed to admit still get then vs than mixed up.


The Merry • September 17, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Oh, and one more technical note. (Did I mention I used to get paid to edit things?) The That/Which distinction is only observed in North America. Countries that follow the British way of writing the English language do not give a flying fajita if you use ‘which’ in either a restrictive or non-restrictive clause.
So, if you read something which bugs you (sic), the author could be pompous or they could be English.
Or both, of course :)


Daantaat • September 18, 2010 at 4:28 am

Congratulations on your upcoming book. I can’t wait to buy it! Your first book inspired me so much; I can’t begin to tell you how much of an impact it had on my life. I’m such a fan of your writing. As for the two links you posted re: grammar and editing marks, thank you!!! I teach English in South Korea and the Korean teachers actually know much, much more than I do about correct grammar usage. The grammar website is a huge help. I have an English degree, but I never had to study English grammar in-depth; it just comes naturally to me when I speak and write, but it’s harder to explain to someone whose first language is not English. The proofreading marks link will come in handy when helping my students with their English essays. Not only are you an inspiration and an awesome writer, but you’re site is so servicey as well. Thank you Jennette!


Christine • September 18, 2010 at 9:55 am

Interesting about okay/ok/OK. Personally, I favour (sorry, I’m Irish) “okay”, but as far as I’m aware the only correct version is “OK”, at least according to my Oxford Writers’ and Editors’ Dictionary. Maybe that’s another UK/US English difference, or maybe my book is out of date. (I’m an editor, but currently not practicing.) I’d love to hear that I’m right.

Congrats on the difficult second book!


Lydia C • September 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

@The Merry – very big LOL.


Suz • September 19, 2010 at 3:55 am

Wow—TWO books and you are sooooo young!!! You can officially put AUTHOR on your passport. (well, you could after one book but two is better-like seconding the motion)


Nicole • September 19, 2010 at 4:16 am

I love your blog. I’ll have to buy your book, for no other reason than to pay you back for all the free entertainment you’ve already given me. :)


townmouse • September 19, 2010 at 10:32 am

A lot of these things (hyphenation, the compound words, the OK/okay distinction) aren’t really wrong or right, it’s just that the publisher or the copy editor will have plumped for one or the other and then is being consistent throughout. English is a very fluid language and words evolve over time but it’s usually best if they stay in the same form in the course of a single publication.


Osa Morena • September 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I am going to go re-read *Half-Assed* to help fill the too-long time till February. P.S. I do love “Spammers are publicly beheaded and their blood is mixed into our spaghetti sauce.” Just right for today’s Intl. Talk Like a Pirate Day, too!


Diane • September 19, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Congrats on your new book! As a copyeditor, it’s nice to see someone who appreciates the work that goes into those finishing touches!


Kate • September 19, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Wow, you just blew my mind. I very clearly remember my 8th grade English teacher writing “If…was” on the board and telling us that was the correct way to say it. After reading this I googled it and turns out I’ve been wrong for years. :(


Deanna - The Unnatural Mother • September 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Thanks for the education! I certainly need it!


Amy M • September 20, 2010 at 5:23 am

I really enjoyed this post. I also saved the Grammar Girl site as a favorite. :)

Congrats on the book.


Lisa Genova • September 20, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I just read your Chocolate & Vicodin ARC and loved it! Working on a blurb for you now.

I still don’t know when to use lay and lie. I’m not sure I ever will.

Congrats to you!


Lunch in Paris • September 21, 2010 at 5:51 am

Love seat? Really…

I couldn’t believe when they sent me back my manuscript and told me to pick a colored pencil! That said, it kept me from deleting whole chapters by mistake, which I might have done if they let me at it on the computer…

Look (Looking?) forward to reading your new one!


Terra • September 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm

So excited about the new book!!!! I can’t wait.


Maureen • September 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

My husband trained the dogs to respond to “Lay down” and I always say “Lie down.” For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t listen to me! Now I get confused and I say “Lay down! Lie Down! Lay Down!” Those poor dogs…


lindsay • September 21, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Before today I’d never read a post about copyediting. how odd that this is the second post that I’ve read today about copyediting? Matt Logelin was writing about it recently too. congrats on book 2! Looking forward to meeting you at the blathering.


lulu • September 23, 2010 at 4:28 am

Fierce arguments used to rage, when I was at university, about grammar and usage; the inherent illogicality of trying to impose the rules of Latin grammar onto an essentially Anglo-Saxon language structure, the inconsistency of spelling arising from Norman scribes grappling with Old English letters and sounds which simply did not exist in their alphabet and the importations from Greek which did, but with extra or different letters after having been filtered through medieval Latin, not to mention the comparatively late standardisation. Afterwards we found out that every publishing house had its own style manual, every employer his or her own personal likes and dislikes and that every author regarded beginning a sentence with a preposition as stylistically appropriate and entirely justified by reference to excellent literary precedent, or not.


Elissa • October 11, 2010 at 9:34 pm

I’m a copy editor, and I agree with townmouse. Some of the changes copy editors make might be based on personal preference or to conform with in-house style. The language is always evolving, and there is a lot of room for interpretation, which is also why copy editors have a tough job.

For example, “OK” is technically right, because it is an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” or “all correct.” (It also shows up first in the dictionary, which means it’s the preferred spelling.) But capital letters also appear shouty, so a lot of editors prefer “okay” because it flows better. :)

Ahem, I have a life, I promise. Also, congratulations on your second book! How exciting!


Ninjutsu Techniques • December 13, 2010 at 2:55 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for that .pdf of copyediting codes; it will be really useful in the future. Good luck with the book!


Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog at JennetteFulda.com.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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