Where is the Copyeditor?

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

So Mickey Rooney has a brainstorm and says to his friends, "Hey! Let’s put on a show!"

One of the other kids chimes in, "We can use my uncle’s barn!"

And since the kid’s uncle happens to be Busby Berkeley, the show turns out just as slick as a regular Hollywood production.

Unfortunately, none of Mickey’s crowd had an uncle in the publishing biz.
If the kids wanted to put out a zine, they had no access to typesetters or a printing press. They had to type out all the material by hand and then cope with the mimeograph or the spirit duplicator, with stencils and correction fluid—the mess of the ink, stains on their hands and clothes; then collating and stapling, again by hand. And the result, with the pages uneven and the letters broken and blurred from the worn-out stencil, was unmistakably the product of a bunch of kids who couldn’t afford to make it a professional job. So if every page was full of typos, no one expected anything better.

Things are much different now. There are computers. There is desktop publishing, there are laser printers; there are websites and printable files. These days, when the kids decide to put out their own zine and publish all their friends, the product is quite likely to be just as slick and polished as an issue of any of the prozines.

So it is disconcerting to open up one of these shiny, professional-looking publications and discover an excessive number of egregious errors—the sort of mistakes that make it clear no copyeditor has ever applied her eyeball to the text.* Why this failure to error-check? Why would people make all the effort to put out such a product and omit this step necessary to make sure it is as flawless as possible?

In such cases, the finger of blame is often pointed at the computer, the very tool that has made possible the new small press as we find it today. The computer has made everything too easy. With a tap of a key, the electronic file containing an entire novel can be sent from the author directly to the publisher’s printer, almost without editorial intervention. What about typos? The author’s spellchecker has caught all of those. Grammatical errors? The author’s computer has a grammar checker. If the editor still has concerns about possible errors hidden in the text, another keyboard tap can send a .pdf file back to the author for proofreading.

In fact, the computer has made it all too easy for the editor to transfer her job back to the author, to impose on him the task of being his own copyeditor. Herein, as all of us who have been authors will surely recognize, lies peril. The author is generally the one person least suitable for the job of finding and correcting errors in his own prose.

Yet the author does want very much to eliminate errors in his manuscript, in order to increase his chances that the piece will be accepted. He knows he can’t rely on his computer’s spellchecker. Where can he find help?

Increasingly, he relies on the workshop. This is not a new institution; there were writers workshops back when Uncle Busby was in his publishing prime, but because typing multiple carbon copies was such a grim task, the author would typically read his manuscript aloud to the assembled members of his group, who would then comment on it while he scribbled notes. After the photocopier became available, Uncle’s nephew Buz could mail copies of his manuscript to the members of his group, or pass them out at the meeting of the roundtable; the postage and photocopying costs could be considerable, but oh! the convenience! Still, if the group wished to meet regularly, the members had to live within a reasonable distance of each other. Once in a lifetime, perhaps, Buz might attend a workshop like Clarion, which draws applicants from around the world, but for the most part, he was limited to the writers in his own hometown.

Now, again, the computer has transformed workshopping. Authors no longer need to meet face-to-face in order to critique each others’ work, or wait until the monthly meeting. The members of the group can send each other their manuscript files by e-mail; they can print out their own hardcopy or perhaps edit the file directly on the screen. All the world and every day can be a workshop, and why limit yourself to one? Today there are writers who will send every story on a full circuit of workshops before ever passing it beneath the eyes of an acquisition editor. How could any errors survive such scrutiny?

Is it any wonder, then, that the editor, assuming the story has been workshopped, might suppose there would not be much left for her to do? By the time she sees it, the piece has already been copyedited by multiple hands. Yet if this is what the editor believes, then she knows not the power of Murphy. The number of things that can go wrong is vast. The author may be one of those rare creatures who does not workshop his stories. The members of his workshop may not have noticed his mistakes. The author may have rejected their corrections, or submitted the uncorrected file in error. Against these contingencies, the only defense is editorial vigilance. The copyeditor is not yet ready to be retired.

*Disclaimer: there are some amongst the new crop of small press editors who do, indeed, conduct a thorough copyedit of the work they commit to print. All praise be unto them.

I also note that the failure to copyedit is by no means restricted to the small press. Lamentable errors can be found in works issued by the largest publishers, although I suspect the reasons may not be the same.