Insights into copy-editingposted 16 October 2012 by Jo Brewer
Production for Managing Web Projects is chugging along nicely, so we thought we’d take a quick break to give you an insight into the parts different people within the team play. This week, we speak to copy editor Owen Gregory, who can usually be found ploughing through multiple manuscripts and battling with erroneous punctuation (just don’t mention the scare quotes).
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work as a copy editor.
I’ve been interested in language and writing since I could read, I suppose. I was a bookish sort of boy and read a lot through primary and secondary school, my parents instilling the idea that books and reading were important. So, on it went: my degree was predictably in English studies, and I went on to get an MA in writing – a cutting-edge course for a British university in 1997.
It was around that time I drifted into web design as I had to manage and update a website as part of my job. I took to it quickly and eventually it became my entire job; I became a freelance web designer in 2006. Earlier, in 2001, I had proofread my wife’s MA dissertation to save a bit of money and wondered then if providing that kind of service might be a source of income. But that was to come quite a bit later, thanks to Five Simple Steps.
How did you get involved with Five Simple Steps?
I’d read Mark Boulton’s Designing for the Web with interest, but kept getting disturbed at errors of punctuation and the occasional inelegance of expression. The production quality of the book was very high and the content was obviously written by a highly knowledgeable and professional expert. It seemed a shame to me that the copy didn’t quite match up. So, with a sharp eye on the chance of paying work, and believing that a web book copy-edited by a web designer had all kinds of benefits, I sent a list of errata to Five Simple Steps. It was seventeen pages long, rather formal and only got as far as chapter 10.
I know, I know.
I hoped that I’d planted some kind of seed. Time passed. When Mark announced that FSS would publish again, I tentatively asked if he could make use of my services. He answered, I remember, “You know what? Yes.” Then FSS threw me in at the deep end with Designing with Data by Brian Suda, for which I was editor rather than copy editor. At times I was unsure of myself, but it was very valuable experience, and Brian’s is still my favourite Practical Guide.
How many Five Simple Steps titles have you worked on so far?
I’ve worked on four titles: Designing with Data, as editor; and Hardboiled Web Design, The Icon Handbook and Web App Success, as copy editor. Right now there’s Managing Web Projects and soon there’ll be the Pocket Guides plus Mark’s next book. It’s been a real privilege to work with the authors. I get to read their books before most people and influence in a small way the work they put their names to. For anyone working in our industry, that’s enviable.
Before you start copy-editing, are there any things you must have by your side?
Well, a lot of my resources are online or computer-based, but I still reach for the two-volume Shorter OED at times, as well as the Oxford Style Manual for more esoteric matters. I’m flexible, though, and don’t blindly follow one set of prescriptions. I turn to other sources like the Chicago Manual of Style (bearing in mind that it’s American and FSS uses British English). The editor of CMoS Online’s Q&A, Carol Fisher Saller, has written a fantastic and funny book, The Subversive Copy Editor, which, although it’s not a reference, I keep around on my desk. There are a few others: I like The Guardian’s style guide, most of which is online, plus Five Simple Steps’ own guide for authors, and the internet. Mainly, it’s me and a word-processor. I make sure all my changes will be tracked and off I go.
Do you have a copy-editing process agreed with the author in advance?
Copy-editing is founded on reciprocity between author and copy editor, which permeates everything from the conversations we have about my copy-edits to concerns about files and versioning. The first law – yes, law – of copy-editing is that there is only one working version of a manuscript which only one person can work on at a time. I also have to insist that a manuscript is complete before copy-editing begins. If even small parts are missing and the author expects to insert them later, there will be blood. Most other matters are negotiable.
You're currently copy-editing Managing Web Projects, which will be published in November. How does the process of editing a book like this differ from editing shorter projects?
Books are long: Designing with Data is around 50,000 words; Web App Success about 80,000; and the ends have to meet, as it were. In shorter, more focused works, like the forthcoming Pocket Guides, it’s more straightforward for the author to sustain momentum from introduction to conclusion. Holding the material and structure of the entire text in my mind is possible, so I can usually concentrate on issues of grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, and clarity of language, sense and argument.
For a full-length book, I have to keep notes and refer back to them and the table of contents. Consistency is key, as well as narrative flow and coherence. When an author spends many months writing, usually jumping from one part of the book to another (it’s a very rare book indeed that is written in order from beginning to end), then inconsistencies and duplication can crop up. Maybe the author relies on something they wrote in an earlier chapter, but it turns out to be in a later one, so some restructuring will be necessary. Or there can be chapters which don’t seem to fit the overarching purpose of the book. As one of the first people to read the book from cover to cover, I have to be able to spot these kinds of problems, flag them up and ask the author to fix them.
Do you find it difficult not to impose your own tone when copy-editing? How do you make sure your changes remain consistent with the author's voice?
It’s important that I remain in the background and my work goes unnoticed; when you read The Icon Handbook you’ll only hear Jon Hicks’s affable voice. Most copy-edits I make are inconsequential in themselves, at least in terms of what the author is saying, but their overall purpose (and effect, I hope) is to enhance how the author comes across in print. It might seem counterintuitive, yet the forms – not rules, exactly – of standard written English really can successfully convey an author’s distinctive idiom.
I usually read through a couple of chapters without copy-editing, to get a sense of the author’s style and manner. Every author overuses certain constructions and reading them again and again can be tiresome, so I’ll add some variety in an appropriate tone. I try to change words and phrases judiciously, usually to improve accuracy or sense. All such changes are tracked by the word-processor and the author will review what I do.
For more significant amendments I’ll write a comment. The book is the author’s, not mine, and where I believe a metaphor, assertion or even argument is flawed, I’ll discuss that with the author. The book’s editor will already have sorted out many of these issues, as the author develops the manuscript, so usually there aren’t many. In almost all cases, the author writes the new text, not me, though I will copy-edit it.
What are your top tips for authors to help avoid a copy editor's wrath?
Wrath? That’s far too grim – though I am guilty of the sins of condescension and impatience. I suppose I could list a few of my pet hates, like scare quotes, or describe my frustration when an author has taken too much to heart the common advice to write as though speaking to the reader, but we’d end on a sour note. Better to ask people writing at length and who know a copy editor will be going through their work to not dismiss copy-editing as unnecessary meddling. Embrace the opportunity to help your readers better understand what it is you have to say – that’s what a good copy editor does.