Having just finished a marathon session reviewing the copy edits for White Smoke (the third book in the Victoria Emerson thriller series), I started to write a post for TKZ that addresses my view of the copy editing process, and shares my copy editing rules. I was a hundred words or so into it when it occurred to me that it was all feeling very familiar.
It turns out that I posted on the topic here back in 2018. So now, if the content feels like you might have read it before, at least you’ll know why–although I have rewritten parts.
Copy editing is the penultimate opportunity for me to make significant changes to a manuscript. By that point, I’ve already addressed the developmental issues outlined in my editorial letter, and–to my mind, anyway–the copy is pretty clean. Typos abound, but not for lack of hunting them down. At that point, I have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.
The next step is for the completed manuscript to be sent off to be copy edited. This is the typo/spelling/continuity review step. 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. I’ve posted here before that I deeply don’t understand commas, and no matter how many times it is explained to me, the rules for “which” vs. “that” elude me. 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 there’s a dark side.
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, their 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.
Most recently, the copy editor noted that referring in dialogue to deer hunting as “killing Bambi” might offend more sensitive readers. My inclination is to write back that I no doubt had lost my sensitive readers about 20 books ago, but instead I responded with the ever-useful “stet.”
I miss the days of handwritten copy edits. I like paper. I like printed manuscripts that I can read in a lounge chair with a lap desk and a pencil, making changes or stetting by hand. For the past five or six years, the edits come as a word file with Track Changes turned on, forcing me to read the book on my computer. Okay, now I’m whining.
The Gilstrap Style Sheet
My publisher uses the Chicago Manual of Style as the Holy Grail of copy edits. That’s fine. There has to be a standard by which to judge correctness. But here’s the thing: Mine is the only name on the spine of the book, and there are instances where I disagree with the style manual. After spending countless hours over my first ten or twelve books stetting changes made by copy editors, I decided to create my own 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.
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.)
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., a Glock 19 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 intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.
As a rule, I dislike exclamation points. Please avoid inserting them.
The first time I submitted a manuscript with the style sheet attached, I expected some pushback from the publisher. Instead, I got a big thank-you and an expressed wish that more authors would do likewise. It saves time for everyone.
Something that a lot of newbies to the writing game don’t realize is that the editor and publisher may not change a word of your manuscript without your permission. I don’t recommend recalcitrance, and I do recommend listening to the editor’s advice, but when the book is published, it’s your work, not theirs. Make sure that it’s what you want it to be.