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A copy-editor's guide to working with authors

Course Description

A module by the Publishing Training Centre
Assuming the role of a copy-editor puts you in an interesting position. You are between the publisher, the author and the manuscript on which you are working. This might apply equally to being a substantive or development editor, or a copy-editor (and also a proofreader, although this module is aimed primarily at editors). It applies whether you are freelance or working in house (after all, you are still being paid by the publisher – whether you refer to them as ‘the client’ or ‘the boss’). It applies whether you are working on a typescript that will be printed in the traditional manner or published as an electronic product to be downloaded or viewed online. And, finally, it applies regardless of the subject matter or intended readership.

You are in the centre of a triangle between the publisher, who pays you, the author, whose work you will be editing, and the reader, to whom you are ultimately responsible. You must ensure that the author’s work is as clear, readable and consistent as possible, without upsetting the author and changing their voice. And you need to make sure that the reader gets as much out of the text as the author originally intended, while working to the time scale and budget set by the publisher. It’s no mean task - the publisher wants the work done promptly and efficiently; the reader ‘wants’ (in an abstract, future sense – they don’t yet know they want it from you) a rewarding reading experience; and the author … well, they don’t want you to mess with their baby.

The manuscript is the focus of your efforts. The author will have spent a lot of time and effort producing the manuscript that you have before you. It might be a first novel, a travelogue of a trip around the world, a how-to guide for fixing a bicycle, a revision guide for geography students or comprehensive coverage of the latest techniques in heart surgery. But the people who write all of these books have two things in common: first, they will all have their work copy-edited, and, second, their work deserves the utmost care and attention.

In your work as a copy-editor you must read the typescript closely, checking for typographical and grammatical errors and ensuring consistency of expression and presentation; meanwhile you are preparing the text for the next stage of production, which is typesetting or conversion into an electronic product. As substantive editor (and here I refer to editors who do development editing as well) you will also be looking at the structure of the text, ensuring that it flows from one subject to the next, and is set out in a logical order that does not confuse the reader. You do this work with the end user – the reader – in mind; but all the while you must ensure that the author’s precious text is not changed unnecessarily, and that their voice and intentions are preserved.

It is this engagement with the originator of a work that can be a thrilling part of an editorial career, but also the most challenging. As copy-editor you have to navigate your way through the process of editing, obtaining information from the author as and when it is needed (it may be clarification on the meaning of a sentence, a missing reference or the exact placement of a particular illustration). As substantive editor you may have to negotiate with an author about how to fix problems with the text, suggesting alternative structures to solve an inherent problem. All this must be done while showing the utmost respect to the work and its author and meeting the needs of the publisher.

The myriad problems that can be uncovered while editing, coupled with the personality of a work’s author, make every encounter on every job practically unique. Some may be happy to place their work in the hands of an expert editor. Some may be very inexperienced and want your guidance. Some may have had previous bad experiences with editors and be very mistrustful of the process, or you and your abilities. Some may have very senior roles and be time-pressured. You need to engage with them all, and build a relationship with them so that you can do your job and produce an edited manuscript that is fit for typesetting.

This e-learning module will outline the lifespan of a project and the ways in which your relationship with an author will develop and change. It will describe the various characteristics of authors that you will work with, and it will tell you the types of potential problems that you will encounter. It will give you strategies for resolving problems and developing fruitful, lasting relationships.

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