Copy edit

When I started writing, I fondly imagined that the job of the writer was to jot down all the brilliant ideas and then pass it on to an editor to do the boring, detailed stuff.

It turns out that the job of the writer is to love the words, to care about every detail, to find the right syntax and rhythm, and to spin a web that traps the reader, lures them in and holds them fast.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Since starting this project in 2012, I have written over a million words of fiction. If you laid the words end to end in a large enough font they would stretch from Teesside in the north of England to the epicentre of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.

In May 2018, the ‘final’ manuscript was sent to Jenny Page, an experienced copy editor.

JP says – Hello!

Jenny went through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, changing my double speech marks to single ones, my en dashes to em dashes, my meccano to Meccano, pointing out overused words (clear) and phrases (too late), clichés and misused quotations, italicising and Oxford comma-ing, making nautical and chemical terms consistent. But also pointing out the continuity errors – a rucksack appearing out of nowhere, a cup of coffee turning into a glass of water between the picking up and putting down.

So what makes someone want to be a copy editor?

JP says – I remember being about five or six and lying in bed, reading Milly, Molly Mandy and wondering what the copyright page was for. Also noticing ‘tight lines’ – where the words are squashed up and need more space between them (a typesetting error). I think I was born to be a copy editor! (Some might think, How sad is that, but each to their own. If you’re a concert pianist, that means hours every day practising scales.)

A copy editor needs to have an obsession with consistency and the patience to spend years learning to notice things, even if you are by nature someone who loves details. Your aim is to get the book as near perfect as possible, so that Dear Reader isn’t snapped out of their reading trance by a typo, for example. I have an internal alarm that pings when I’ve read something that isn’t right, even though my eye hasn’t seen it. Then I go back and find it.

You need to enjoy reading New Hart’s Rules – not the greatest of thrillers, although it contains some very interesting things about language and usage.

Copy-editing is a human skill, so I do miss things! Eek. Thank goodness for proofreaders, who check the copy editor’s work when they read the proofs.

After several weeks to and fro, I had a clean copy with all the grammar and spelling and punctuation corrected, the worst repetitions removed, the continuity fixed and (excitement of excitements!) a copyright page, complete with ISBN number.

And yet, when I read it with fresh eyes, I still found twenty-six pages worth of new changes of my own to make and – after getting permission from Jenny Parrott – a thousand new words to add. More work for the copy editor.

Jenny didn’t blink an eye, incorporated my final additions on the same day I sent them.

JP says – Thank you! I love my work, and I loved working on The Chemical Detective. Every writer who ever lived feels that they’ve never really finished the book, and have a suspicion it’s not good enough, so take courage!

A rights director at Penguin once told me, years ago, that Dick Francis’s manuscripts would come in beautifully presented, with barely a thing needing doing to them, so perhaps he’s the exception.

My watchword, if you like, is ‘ask the questions of the manuscript before the reader asks them’, in other words, deal with it now. . .

Jenny is patient, astute and great fun to work with. I was almost sorry when our word-sparring ended and, in mid-July 2018, the copy-edited final manuscript went back to Oneworld.