Note to Copy Editor

By John Gilstrap

After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short.  I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much.  I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

But sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.

The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system.  Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype.  A simple STET is no longer allowed.

What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.

So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)  (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)

Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)

Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available.  These are very deliberate choices.)

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

References to federal agencies need no definite article.  (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)

When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.

Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written.  Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)

I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.

As a rule, I dislike exclamation points, and use them sparingly. Please avoid inserting them.

Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?

Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)


This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writetips, A Writer's Life, copy editing, copyediting by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

59 thoughts on “Note to Copy Editor

  1. Love the note page you send with your manuscript. I am fortunate to have a great copy editor who has saved my rear so many times I need to name her in my will. Not that she’d get much, but surely the thought counts. And Happy New Year to you, too!

  2. I despise Track Changes, too, although I haven’t been at this gig long enough to have dealt with hard copy. I love your “hands off” message. I need a style sheet, although most of the time, I ask my editor what’s correct (I’m terrible with hyphens) and then hope I’m consistent or she catches where I screw up.

    I know it’s not possible for editors to know everything about every subject, but one would hope publishers would look for people who understand the genre. Wishful thinking, I know. I had to correct my editor that ‘biceps’ is singular. And I had one editor who wanted me to explain what a Glock was the first time I used it. She had no clue it was a gun.

    Early on, I had an editor who missed the fact that I had 3 characters named Hank, which I didn’t discover until I got the rights back and re-edited (does that need a hyphen?) the manuscript to indie publish it. Since then, I’ve kept a spreadsheet of names. And, I discovered, when putting a recent book into audio, that a character’s parents had died when she was eight. And again when she was eighteen.

  3. I’m right there with you on commas. Got my edit back from the proofreader and there were just under a gazillion corrections, 99.99% of which were commas. Either needed and not used, or not needed and used. I’m just going to quit using them and add a page at the end of every novel with nothing but commas and tell the proofreader to put them whence they go.

  4. Nothing in a writer’s life approaches the dizzying blend of elation and dread as the moment you send that ms to the publisher. It’s similar to the instant you launch your hanglider, knowing that no matter what happens, you’re in for a helluva ride.

  5. John, your style sheet is a great idea, especially with weapons terminology.
    Recently I had a mostly positive experience with a copyeditor except she added semicolons (ugh!), and she changed “Army” to “army” all the way through.
    The other oddity was the use of italics for thoughts. My understanding had always been you indicated thoughts and internal monologue by using italics, OR you used an attribution like “he thought” without using italics. But you didn’t use both.
    For example, I wrote **I ought to spank your little butt, she thought.** w/o italics, but she added italics. Seems like overkill but not worth an argument.
    Funny how grammatical styles change.
    Commas remain necessary. “Let’s eat, Mother.” vs. “Let’s eat Mother.”

    • Debbie, I think I’m on your copy editor’s side when it comes to the italics. To me italicized thoughts are treated like silent dialogue, with the italics substituting for quotes. It could very well be that the attribution is redundant, but that would depend on the context.

      It would also depend on the tense. In your example, “She ought to spank his butt, she thought” would not require italics because it’s part of the narration.

      As for the final part, “Let’s eat, Mother” is what you say to Mom. Then, you turn to the siblings and whisper, “Let’s eat Mother.” Both can work in the same story. 🙂

      Any other thoughts?

      • I’d like to see a KZB post on internal dialog. I had a reader (MFA, teaches creative writing) critique my use of internal dialog. She feels that thinking process is disorganized and perhaps even incoherent and that using internal dialog gives a false impression. Better to have narrator summarize what the person thought. That way reader is not asked to accept that they’re actually inside the character’s brain.

  6. I wince at whence! (exclamation point intended).

    I like the idea of a stylesheet specific the you. I end up adding comments to comments to explain some of the issues/corrections.

    At the risk of being banished from TKZ, can someone please explain the no semicolon rule? I know there’s debate about its use in fiction, but my editor has actually added them. I’m not sure why it’s such a bad thing, but maybe I’m just used to reading a lot of business and technical documents.

    • As you may remember from previous posts, I reject the notion that there are rules to writing fiction. I think semicolons are a lot like prologues in the sense that everyone says they don’t belong in fiction, yet many works of fiction use them. In the case of semicolons, my most recent copyeditor actually inserted a few that I subsequently removed.

      I personally don’t like semicolons for two reasons. First, I don’t fully understand their use. Beyond the arcane rules of grammar, I don’t see that the semicolon carries any water that a comma or a period cannot. Because I don’t understand their utility, they seem sort of pretentious to me. For me, it’s a personal stylistic choice rather than an overarching rule.

      • Mike,
        To add my two cents (I hate semi-colons):
        I think they are sort of looked down on for fiction because the trend (at least in crime fiction) is toward intimate point of view, which means you try to filter the story as closely through your characters consciousnesses as possible). So I fall back on the idea that humans don’t think or speak in semi-colons, so why would you use them in your narrative? The semi-colon is very useful in non-fiction, academic writing and such. But I think, on the fiction page, it hangs out there like some vestigial tail, a sad little grammar appendage of “proper grammar” that really serves no function.

  7. Thanks for reminding us about style sheets, John. Although mine is not as comprehensive as yours, it has helped me avoid hours of frustration. And by the way, who in the world says “whence”?

  8. Hahahaha. Love your edit page, John! (exclamation point is intentional 😉 ) You’ve echoed several exchanges I’ve had with my editor. In one book, she got it in her head that every name brand needed the trademark symbol or it needed to be changed to a generic term. This caused real problems. During the time when the story took place, iPhones weren’t able to be tracked like other cell phones. By changing iPhone to a generic term, it voided the specific procedure that followed (grounded in research). Needless to say, I did not accept that change, but we had a lengthy discussion as to why. Also, in a previous book, I made it a point to use Aramis cologne to introduce a character. Every time he comes on scene, the characters are hit with a wave of Aramis. To change it to the generic term “cologne” made no sense. It ended up with the trademark symbol next to it in some books, not in others. Ugh.

    Re: dammit or chrissakes. I do the same thing for the same reason.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Sue. “He handed her a Kleenex Brand Facial Tissue” does seem a little cumbersome, but I get that brands need to protect their trademarks. I once got a cease and desist letter from a major manufacturer regarding my use of their product without the TM indicator. My publisher at the time explained it to me as something they must do, but that required no action on our parts.

      As I understand the law, when a brand becomes a generic term through common usage, it loses it’s trademark. Phrases such as, “Hey Xerox this for me” or “Hand me a Kleenex” pose that threat to the trademark holder. Thus, my characters make photocopies and wipe their noses with tissues.

      Using the brand name in the context of the specific product shouldn’t be a problem, though. Whether it’s Aramis cologne or Lagavulin scotch, the product is what it is, and I’ve never been asked to insert a TM. I happen to know that Heckler & Koch and Colt are both quite pleased that Jonathan Grave likes their firearms. That said, while I’ve established that Jonathan dislikes the AK-47, I’ve never mentioned a manufacturer’s name. This way, I can establish that he hates the platform, while never insulting a company.

  9. Your style page is a brilliant idea, especially for a continuing series! It would really save me STETing stuff and having to leave track changes comments explaining “It’s a habit of his and has been for nine books.” I’ll stay out of the semicolon debate, although I do have a (strong) opinion. Not to mention the Oxford comma. 😉 Personally, I have ellipsis disease. I have to go through every book and take out at least half of them, which in my case is a considerable number. I’ve also recently developed hyphenitis, at least judging by my last two copy edits where the CE took most of them out… <–aaaand there's my inevitable ellipsis

    • Okay, Justine, you just triggered my OCD (or CDO, in alphabetical order). You wrote, “although I do have a (strong) opinion” regarding semicolons. Here’s where my mind goes with that sentence:

      Since parentheticals are technically not a part of a sentence–i.e., they can be excised without changing the meaning–I would get wrapped around the axle with the indefinite article. “An opinion” is the meaningful phrase that is merely interrupted by the parenthetical “strong”. Therefore, shouldn’t it read, “an (strong) opinion”? It sounds awkward, but it holds logically, and I therefore couldn’t live with it. I would write, “a strong opinion” or “an opinion–a strong one.”

      This is not meant as a criticism, only as a glimpse into my process of over-thinking things.

      • LOL on OCD in alphabetical order! That’s a serious case. 🙂
        And I would agree technically you are correct, so I must have written that more for sound than syntax. 😉

  10. John, your style sheet is an editor’s dream. It is clear and concise. If only I received one from every author whose manuscript I edit. In most cases, I end up creating a sheet to send back to the author, explaining why I used certain spellings, punctuation, etc. If they haven’t chosen before I get their pages, I have to start somewhere. And I’m a killer when it comes to misused words. 😉

    “No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.” Hooray! I see (and remove) semicolons in dialogue all the time. I don’t know anyone who talks like that. I suggest to clients that they sit somewhere and listen to the flow and natural pauses in conversations taking place around them. Our brains race ahead of our tongues, and nothing comes out of our mouths in perfect grammatical structure. That is how we make written dialogue sound natural.

    And thank you for acknowledging the amount of attention to detail and research that goes into editing. I enjoy doing that kind of work and always learn something unique while working with each new manuscript.

    P.S. You’ll notice I use two spaces between sentences here. While it’s no longer the standard, I feel it’s easier on the reader’s eyes. So I use it in personal writing and stomp it out in manuscripts. Writers and editors can be flexible about some things.

    • Hi, Suzanne. I’m trying hard to wean my way out of the two-spaces thing, but I’m thinking it’s impossible. That’s what the search-and-replace function is for.

      On the issue of research, my last CE blew me away. There’s a throw-away line in SCORPION STRIKE (July, 2018), where a character pulls a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book from 1996 off a shelf. It’s not a pivotal scene, merely something for him to do, and wouldn’t you know that the CE made the marginal note, “Wow! That’s the volume that the author John Gilstrap appeared in! His book Nathan’s Run was published in it. Double wow!” I mean, holy crap! Yeah, I put it there as an Easter egg, but I never thought anyone would find it . . . (The ellipses are for Justine.)

      • Yes, my search-and-replace gets a workout as the last step before submitting for publication. It always amazes me when all those extra spaces disappear in the time it takes me to swallow a sip of coffee. And of course, the backspace key is my favorite.

        Good for your CE, John! I have to be careful not to fall down the research rabbit hole when working on clients’ manuscripts. My bookmark manager groans every time I add one to mark something I want to explore further.

  11. Brother, you knew this one would bring out the responses. Your style sheet is a terrific idea.

    I have a little quirk I use and I prefer it remain unedited. When referring to numbered streets or avenues, I spell out the ordinal numbers up to and including “twelfth”, switching to numerical designations thereafter (13th, 45th, etc). I know only 1-10 are “supposed to” be spelled out, but I include 11 and 12 because so many things are based on 12. After all, “eleven” and “twelve” are their own numbers, not derivatives of another number, eg, “sixteen” or “seventeen”.

    In one of my books, a lot of action takes place on East Eleventh Avenue in Hialeah, so that’s how I write it. Besides, it looks better.

    • Don, I think your quirk makes a lot of sense. And I’ll take it even further. In narrative exposition, I’ll write that Mr. Jones lives at 1289 27th Street, but in dialogue, I’ll write, “Mister Jones lives at twelve eighty-nine Twenty-seventh Street.” I’ve had copy editors go both ways on those choices.

  12. Whence? Whence? Good grief…I thought I’d seen it all.

    My experience with Thomas & Mercer editors was great…they always deferred to our style and even asked us ahead of time to send us a list of personal style choices. Still, had a couple boneheaded things come back, like an editor who changed Down syndrome to down’s syndrome and incorrectly corrected some of my French ballet terms. (I made my living as a dance critic for 17 years…)

    As for old Stet…God, I miss him,

  13. Then there are the copy editors who feel compelled to change the author’s voice in nonfiction trade books . . . For crap’s sake respect voice–in fiction or nonfiction. If voice is bad it should never have gotten to a copy editor.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Eric.

      For over a decade, I worked for a trade association in DC where I wrote a monthly column on safety and health issues. I found out early on that communications directors at such places are used to having absolute control over every word that goes out to the public. I’d never experienced that before, and it led to some early clashes. I was never good at Washington-speak, so I had no problem calling stupid, stupid. In my columns, workers were killed by “management failures,” not by “accidents.”

      The communications guy edited my first column without running the changes past me first, and turned my hard-hitting, focused narrative into milquetoast junk. When I told the management team to take my name off the column, they accused me of not being a team player. I then pointed out that: a) when I’m making my point my way, under my name, I’m giving them shelter *because* I’m not part of a team; and b) that there was a whole other part of my life that could not afford to have my name associated with “boring.” To their credit, they ruled in my favor, and no changes were ever again made to my writing without my permission.

      The safety director who replaced me abandoned the monthly column.

  14. I used to be a copy editor for a small west coast publishing house. (Personalized style sheet note: I don’t feel it’s necessary EVER to capitalize west coast.)

    We copy editors, with the approval of a court of law, got you bastards on the necessity of using the Oxford comma, didn’t we? Do not use them, and we will work on the possibility of having police or troops headed by officers of the court march on your house with rifles at port arms, and MAKE you use Oxford commas.

    Now that I’m a writer, I really hate copy editors.

      • I’m with you there! The criminally nitpicky ones make me crazy, but I’ve been saved by great catches from others enough times that I just grit my teeth and bear it. A really good CE is worth their weight in just about whatever trade medium they want.

  15. I’m no where near the copyeditor stage yet, but what I hate the most about receiving feedback is when they ask me a question–because it’s confusing–then answer it in the same comment. Clearly, if they can come up with the answer that fast, nothing’s confusing.

    • In my experience, the copy editor never sees the manuscript again, so inquiries are strictly for the benefit of the author, with no explanation necessary.

  16. Coming in from the cold, as it were, and being picked up by a publisher was indeed my awakening to the fact that I apparently know very little about commas.

    That said, copy editors (aka proofers) for audiobooks can be really tough. Especially when the book takes place in a region or a character has an accent the proofer is unfamiliar with but thinks they know all about it because they watched Northern Exposure (A show about Alaska, shot in Washington, by actors none of whom were from either Alaska or Canada).
    Like a proofer who returned a buttload** of corrections* to me related mainly to pronunciations of Canadian places, and regional accents. Turns out the guy had never been further north than LA, but still wouldn’t take my word for accents that I am surrounded by every day. In the end, I sent him youtube videos of people from Northern Alberta, the Yukon and Alaska talking with the accents and pronunciations I had used.

    I mean come on! The book was about a mercenary Canadian werewolf hunter. If there is one thing I am well versed in, it is the linguistic delicacies of mercenary Canadian werewolf hunters! Sheesh!

    *~350 corrections requested for a 160k word book, 250+ falling under the above regional/accent case. The publisher eventually convinced the proofer to chill out…maybe get out of SoCal a bit more often.

    **A buttload is technically a barrel containing 126 gallons of liquid, which is how many pints of lager it took to calm me down by the time I convinced him there was a reason I knew so much about mercenary Canadian werewolf hunters!

    • I can relate. One of my publisher’s narrators sounded like a New Yorker when she was supposed to use a Boston accent. Unfortunately, they don’t allow the authors to listen to any samples. The first I heard it was after publication. Ugh.

    • The audio versions of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series are narrated by a Brit! He has a fine voice, but it is hardly suited to Jonathan’s world. Then we found this guy named Basil Sands, and he’s nailed every book since. He even reaches out to the author for input on tricky parts.

      A pivotal character in every book is my cyber-genius Venice. Each time she’s introduced, I need to find a new way to explain to the reader that she pronounces her name as Ven-EE-chay. That posed difficulties in the audio version, so Basil proposed changing that line to “she spelled it like Venice, the city in Italy.” That’s a pro at work! (Intentional use of exclamation point.)

    • I’d never really thought about this. I hire my own narrators, and do my own proofing. We’ve all worked hand in hand to make sure the accents, inflections, and everything else works. After all, I’m the one paying them, so they listen, although it’s a back and forth exchange when they explain/justify how they’ve read something.

  17. Funniest comments I’ve read in a long time. Love it (!).

    I’ve done a lot of editing in my time, from developmental to line editing, and, except once, I always discussed style sheets ahead of time. With one project, however, the publisher wanted the book out yesterday, so I made changes without discussing them with the author. Fortunately, he had a strong voice, and I seemed to “get” his voice, so he was pleased with the changes. Whew!

    As for semi-colons, I have seen them work–that is, they didn’t jump off the page and scream at me–but like anything else, they can become a writing tic. I understand how and when to use them, so in my own writing, I tend to make two sentences rather than use a semi-colon. Or sometimes the n-dash, or whatever it’s called (is it the m-dash?)

    Sometimes I use Canadian expressions or vocabulary even though I write “American.” Things like serviette instead of napkin, or purse instead of handbag. A good copy editor will pick up my Canadianisms.

    I didn’t expect to enjoy this post… a pleasant surprise.

  18. As an editor, as well as a writer, I think think it would be a wonderful practice for every writer to develop the habit of keeping a stylesheet and handing it in with every manuscript — it would save a lot of time and help avoid misunderstanding.

    Re: your erstwhile unlamented copy editor, if she’d really been consistent, she would have rewritten your line: “whence came the youth anon.” 😉

Comments are closed.