An ode to the copy-editor

I’ve just finished the copy-edits for Greythorne, which feels like (and is, really) a huge milestone. This is the last substantial edit the book is going to get (it’ll have a final proofread, but that’s really a last-line-of-defence check for overlooked issues) – the last of five major edits it’s had since the first draft. After the first draft, I edited it myself – and rewrote around 15,000 words – then gave it to a group of fabulous beta readers. On the basis of their comments, I rewrote about another 10,000, then got it appraised by a professional editor, and made some more changes based on her feedback. When it was accepted for publication, the commissioning editor asked for a few tweaks before the final submission, and now here we are at the copy-edit.

Copy-editors are, I feel, the people in the publishing process who make arguably the most difference to the final book and yet receive very little credit for it.  Perhaps some authors dislike the process, feeling that their masterpiece is being irrevocably altered; personally, I love it. Having worked as a copy-editor myself – although never on fiction – I could tell immediately that the editor who worked on my manuscript has vast experience and skill. Many people (even authors) don’t appreciate the intricacies and damned hard work involved in copy-editing – it’s not just checking for typos. The copy-editor I was lucky enough to work with clearly knew the book’s time period (Victorian England) inside out, and she picked up on tiny inconsistencies that I hadn’t even noticed. She also highlighted any logic flaws or misunderstandings, or stylistic things like foreshadowing too much too early. Her style was constructive and collaborative, and I never once felt like she was trying to impose her own voice on my work (which is a very delicate balance that’s hard to get right). She also wrote me a lovely letter saying how much she’d enjoyed reading it and how she thought it would do well in the market, which was something I really needed to hear – when you’ve poured the last months and years of your life into a story, there comes a point where you can’t even tell if it’s any good at all or if you should just give up and burn it with fire, so it’s nice to have an objective person tell you they like it.

Some of literature’s greatest success stories have been a result of the collaboration between writer and editor – where would T.S. Eliot have been without Ezra Pound? So I say to my fellow authors – if you don’t already, embrace your copy-editor. A good one will make a world of difference to your book and, unless you mention them in the acknowledgements, will go entirely unsung. To aspiring authors, I say pay the money if you possibly can to get your manuscript assessed by a professional. In my experience, it will make all the difference when you come to pitch it to a publisher. Really, the writing is the easy part – it’s after the first draft is finished that the hard work starts.

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