The Care And Feeding Of Copy Editors

By JohnGilstrap

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.

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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.

24 thoughts on “The Care And Feeding Of Copy Editors

  1. Great post, John. I had missed it in 2018, so thanks for repeating it.

    I love the Style Sheet. A very good idea, and I would think that a majority of copy editors would appreciate it.


  2. I developed a style sheet when I was writing inside the walls of the Forbidden City. But it’s also good to have one if you’re indie, to stay consistent with yourself.

    Wish we had a picture of your expression when you read the copy editor’s change of Jonathan’s weapon. Or a recording…

  3. Oh, how I despise Track Changes (and they’ve “updated it” so it’s even harder to deal with). My editor and I go back and forth about some of her suggestions, but–especially being indie–the final version is mine. Also, she has a very light hand, which can have positives and negatives. I just finished my last pass of Cruising Undercover, which I did via the paperback proof copy. It’s very different seeing it in book form. There are positives and negatives for both here, too–and I think both are important. On the computer, it’s easier to do those searches … why did I write both barbecue and barbeque? Or flare-up and flareup? But you have to know to look for them. And reading the book as a ‘book’ brings all sorts of new things to my attention.
    Love your style sheet. I might have to create one, at least for my Mapleton series. Right after I get around to doing that series bible.

  4. I love this, and your style sheet is great!

    One thing I’ve learned is that people who grew up in, say, New York, don’t have a clue about a lot of things that are common in the rest of the country, especially in rural areas. Even the best clinical research isn’t going to tell them how real gun owners talk about their weapons, for instance. I argued about one change that mattered to me in my first book. I lost. But in the end, the book was published, I got paid, and I was thankful. Thanks for this information.

    • So much stupid from editors who went to Ivy League schools and have never traveled except by plane over the the US to Miami to visit the grandparents or Vegas for the gambling. I had a friend who went to Harvard who pretended his family had a plantation and used all the stupid Southern stereotypes, and those students bought it all. He and the other Southerners just laughed in their faces.

  5. Good morning, John.

    “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” – That’s hilarious.

    I’m fortunate to be working with a couple of excellent freelance editors. They’ve worked on all of my books and they understand my style. By the time the ms gets to the copy editor, I fancy myself that it’s practically perfect. Then it comes back with changes tracked aplenty. I balk on some of her suggested changes, but most of them are straightforward grammar and punctuation issues. Sigh.

    I recently received an email from someone who had read my latest book and had found several “mistakes.” She said she was a copy editor, so I asked her to send me a list of the problems. She did, and I was embarrassed to have to explain to her that grammar rules don’t apply inside dialogue.

  6. I’m indie, so I hire my copy editors, and boy do I need the help. Comma usage still bedevils me as well. As do the missing words. I also have used both paid and volunteer proof readers. The paid one ended up missing far too many errors.

    Also, I love your style sheet and need to do something similar going forward.!

    • I have the advantage of being an English major who taught writing so I’m not intimidated by a comma or word placement. Some editors are appallingly illiterate. I had one place commas hither and yond because “a comma should be placed where you take a breath” when you read aloud. I did a ten-page sampling, and she’d added over 50% more commas than were needed. She had a fit when I took away the commas, then I mentioned my background, and she shut up. I’d have pulled that dang book if she’d left those commas. My name is on the book, not her’s, and I have pride in my craft.

  7. Some publishers, believe it or don’t, evidently use undergrad Lit or English major interns for reading and copy editing. I sold a piece on computer aided design to a technical magazine. In the intro, I used the “build a better mouse trap” quote in its entirety: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”*

    The copy editor struck the quote, among other things. But the article referred back to it several times, and, without the quote, these allusions became orphaned and cryptic. I marked up my proof copy, deleting those, along with several added editorial mistakes, and returned it to the magazine.

    Then the editor called me and said he needed another 100 words. I was greatly tempted to tell him to pull the article, but significant money was involved, so I put back the material struck, except for the quotation and all its waifs.

    I’m fairly certain agencies also use interns for screening submissions. A friend has reached the same conclusion, based on erroneous feedback from agents. (E.g., “too much description” on a book m/s whose description is all on the first page.)

    * Oft attributed to Emerson, probably correctly, but no written proof exists. [] The quotation is hyperbole, regardless. Most patents are not worth their cost; no woodland paths have ever been beaten to sermonizers’ doors, etc.

    • Interesting you bring up a quote. One of the copy edits in WHITE SMOKE addresses dialogue in which characters are discussing the Edmund Burke quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The copy editor wrote a note (with citations) that Burke never wrote that. As if it matters in fiction that common–if errant–attribution appears in fiction.

    • As the resident English major, I helped my roommate and friends with their English 101 compositions. I still remember that one got back a perfectly fine article on how to make cornbread that was marked down for not saying “cast iron pan,” instead of “pan.” Sigh. So many idiots.

  8. If you write historical, fantasy, or science fiction, a spelling list for tech, made-up, or archaic words and names is always a great idea. I kept one going in my book bible so I just had to copy and paste it for my style sheet.

  9. “Mine is the only name on the spine of the book.”

    Here’s where indie shines, and you can also look like a total idiot.

    When I come across something I haven’t had to copy edit before, I turn to my Handbook of Good English, make sure what is in my head agrees with Edward Johnson’s take (he allows plenty of exceptions when the rules are fuzzy), and write it down. Somewhere. Scrivener is searchable, so I can always find my decisions.

    I am fortunate enough not to be grammatically challenged – and survived reading lots of English and American literature and not-so-literature, and most of it stuck (along with the fact that there are many variations – pick one and stick with it). I feel for people who can’t spell or use commas, semi-colons, colons, the various dashes, an occasional exclamation point, and question marks – the last two upside down when writing in Spanish.

    I dare to be my own copy editor, and we never disagree. Any and all feedback is accepted (my beta reader is amazing – my goal is to not give her anything), and sends me back to Mr. Johnson for a quick check – I know my mind is damaged, and it’s easier to check now than to risk publishing something which will attract derision.

    Because “Mine is the only name on the spine of the book.” I like it that way.

  10. Love your point about capitals for the branches of the service. In my Cutter’s Code series several of the characters are vets, mostly Army and Marines. In my last manuscript, in the un-beloved Track Changes, was an exchange between the content editor and the copy editor. “Leaving Army, Marines, etc capitalized. Apparently the author prefers it that way.”

    Good call. Sheesh.

  11. I love your list. After I had a particularly awful copy edit in which the CE added what seemed like 4,002 commas, I made a list of do’s and don’t’s for the CEs too. It took me days to go through it and I ripped out almost all of the commas. I wound up adding some back because in my zeal I had taken out some necessary ones. I am an English major and I like to think I have a decent understanding of commas.
    I think CEs don’t understand about the flow of the words. Sometimes I’ll leave out a comma because it messes up the rhythm. I know it’s technically supposed to be there, but I don’t care. The rhythm is more important to me than making it technically correct.
    And never, ever touch my dialogue!

  12. I love my editors, seriously, particularly because of my own creative use of commas (to quote a particular copy editor).

    But I had to laugh at the army versus Army. I’ve explained quite politely that I understand what CMOS says, but I also understand what my readers believe. Sorry, but readers win.

  13. I am so late in commenting, John. Sorry about that, but I was in proofreader hell. I’d already gone through the editing process with my editor. The book was done as far as I was concerned. Then this new proofreader felt the need to add her 2c, changing dialogue, the spelling of a last name (!), and wanted me to change the location of my killer–all prefaced with “I know I’m not an editor but…” I rejected her advice, but I still needed to go through the entire manuscript to see what else she changed. Ugh.

    Needless to say, I saved this post when it hit my inbox to read later. Love the idea of a letter! I’ll be adopting that strategy from here on out. Thank you.

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