Finding the right copyeditor

Are you ready to start looking for a copyeditor*? That usually means you’ve revised your manuscript in response to feedback from beta readers and/or a developmental editor and feel like it’s super clean. It just needs fresh eyes and a final polish.

You want to be sure you’re compatible with your copyeditor, and we want that, too. Ask published authors in your writing groups and on social media for a few recommendations. Out of those, choose two to four prospects who appeal to you. Investigate us online, if you like—you’d do that for a person watching your children or pets, right? Your book deserves someone who will treat it with similar tenderness and respect.

Approach the copyeditors you’ve selected one at a time with a query similar to what you might send an agent: include word count, a brief description of the book, and how you heard about them. Suggest a schedule and ask about availability. Be frank about the genre, any explicit sex or violence, religious and political themes, and so on.

Most copyeditors are glad to provide a brief sample edit at no charge. It’s how many of us discover whether we’re compatible with an author or manuscript, too, and what our budget should be. It’s best to provide one candidate at a time with your entire manuscript in Microsoft Word so that the copyeditor can choose a few pages to work on. Most of us realize that the first few pages are likely to be the cleanest, and we’ll pick a section from the last half of the book to sample.

As of 2016, Word is still the tool most of us use to convey our edits. We can easily track the changes, control versions, and query as necessary. Please don’t use the Mac application Pages without discussing it first. The two programs are not compatible for this work, as I’ve discovered to my dismay. Programs like Scrivener are great to organize ideas and Google Docs might be a good place to draft, but once the manuscript heads to the copyeditor it should be in Word and stay that way until formatting for print or ebook.

When you receive a sample copyedit, read through the corrections to get a feel for the kind of thing that’s marked. You should sense a willingness to explain rules but not necessarily to insist upon them. When I’m editing, I refer constantly to dictionaries, websites, and style guides—and many of those contradict each other. When in doubt, a good copyeditor will query or let the author’s decision stand. From the beginning, English has been expanding to fit our world, to the delight of many copyeditors and the dismay of others. The sample should help you determine which way your copyeditor leans, and whether the two of you are a match.

*The book publishing industry makes copyeditor one word; for journalism, it’s two.

Most-Hated Books

A thread in a Facebook group I belong to begins with one writer’s most-hated book: The Fountainhead. I immediately feel a chime of agreement. Though I’ve never read The Fountainhead, I did force myself to finish Atlas Shrugged after a friend said it was her favorite book. There’s no way I would subject myself to another Ayn Rand screed posing as a story.

Some love it, some don't.

Some love it, some don’t.

But further down the thread, other members of the group express different ideas. Their most-hated books and authors include some of my favorites: The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as well as The Casual Vacancy; anything by Barbara Kingsolver; something else by Stephen King. There were also the usual suspects: Hemingway, Faulkner, Austen, and Moby Dick on the “literature” side, Fifty Shades and Twilight among the commercially successful. One that surprised me was how many hate Holden Caulfield.

I didn’t bother to raise my voice in agreement with the Ayn Rand haters, but I read every post until my Internet connection clicked off. If anything, it should make writers very, very happy to know that such famous and popular authors are also thoroughly hated by a few. You can’t please everybody, so you might as well write what pleases you. A few rejections might just mean that you haven’t yet reached the readers who love your work.

What’s a story question?

A story question, for me, is any question that pops into my reader’s head as I read. They appear in fiction and nonfiction, books and newspaper articles, blogs and business plans. Without them, writing can seem flat or boring.

There can be many in any given story; ideally, they are planted at one point and paid off—answered or satisfied—somewhere in the story. A good way to think of them is as nesting brackets. The largest question is usually planted first and paid off last, while smaller questions can be planted and paid off in different places in the story.

Remote little house with trees, fence, and brown grass under gray skies.

You don’t even need a story to have a story question. Photo from Unsplash by elizabeth lies,

In literary fiction, they don’t all have to be answered. They can be left open, but bringing them back serves to satisfy them.

Genre fiction usually answers them: “Should you mess with time travel? No, you should not. But if you do, you’d better fix what you messed with” (the big story question and answer in Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63.); “Will the bad guy get away with it? Never!” (just about any detective story); “What will happen to Elizabeth Bennett when her father dies and the family home goes to a distant cousin? She’ll be the lady of her own grand house, thanks to her personal integrity and stubborn adherence to what she knows is right.” (the story question and answer in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is usually considered a foremother of the romance genre even though it’s also considered lit fic).

Any other great examples of story questions, either resolved or left open, that come to mind?

Being a freelance proofreader

I’ve had several people ask how to break into editorial freelancing. Freelance proofreading can be a good way to begin working in the publishing industry, but rarely is there enough proofreading work to make it a sole income source. University presses often spread the work out among many freelancers, carefully matching each book to the person proofreading it. If you look at my list of completed proofreading projects, you’ll probably notice a pattern. Moonlighting as a proofreader while working at a regular job or combining freelance proofreading work with indexing and other levels of editing can help smooth out the low spots.

Proofreading on hard copy

I hope this post will be helpful whether you’re a proofreader wanting to compare my proofreading process with yours, an author wondering about the stage, or a project editor considering how to train new proofreaders. If you have questions or your process is different, I’d love to hear about it.

These are the procedures I go through when proofreading nonfiction page proofs (also called first pages or galleys) for a publisher. Proofreading fiction has fewer steps (no references, figures, and such), and proofing an ebook onscreen will be different, too. This kind of proofreading, also known as a cold read, is different from checking against a marked-up manuscript. If you’d like thorough, step-by-step instructions for proofreading with no personal anecdotes, I’ve also written up the best practices I’ve found.

Before I begin to read

When I get a book to proofread, it’s an unbound hard copy (also called first pages, page proofs, or an unbound galley). The publisher usually provides a checklist. There is a style sheet from the copy editor (the best style sheets list all place names and people names as well as terms of art) and a standard form that tells the proofreader what style to use for dates, plural possessives, etc. If your publisher does not provide this, it’s a good idea to make one yourself, choosing the first instance as the example—date style might be 23 April 2016 or April 23, 2016. There also may be a list of text for running heads on each chapter’s recto (right-side pages) and verso (left-side pages). The publisher also provides flags, which have gum on one edge that you need to moisten to attach to a page when you have a question for the project editor. Post-it notes do NOT work as flags, because they come off too easily. You stick the flag to the back side of the page you’re querying and fold it over to the front.

First, I gather my proofreading tools and read through all the style sheets and instructions. This step sounds terribly boring, but it engraves unusual spellings or style choices in my mind so that I don’t waste time correcting it. Then I count the pages (roman and arabic) and add up the numbers. This is on the publisher’s checklist. As I’m counting, I put a Post-it note at the start of each chapter. I reuse those notes many times; they are simply labeled 1, 2, 3, Ack, TOC, Intro, etc. This set of Post-it notes is just a tool; I remove them before returning the pages to the publisher.

The Post-it notes are helpful when I check or add the page numbers and compare chapter titles in the table of contents with those at the head of chapters. I set aside the front matter and carefully check that the chapter titles and page numbers in the table of contents match what’s on the actual page. At this time, I also hold the opening page of each chapter up to the light along with the one that came before, to ensure that the sinks (top margins) and other formatting of the chapter titles are consistent. I check for things like font size, caps, line spacing, etc. I note any discrepancies by putting a check mark next to the lines involved in both places and attaching a flag. On the flag, I write a brief query (e.g., “Chapter title does not match TOC”) and the page number (in case the flag is somehow separated from the page it refers to). The lead pencil, not the red pencil, is used for marking up the pages and writing on the flags. At this time, I also check that the running heads match the list provided and flag the ones that don’t.

I also look at the front matter carefully to see if there are any blanks; usually the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication information is not yet complete at this stage, so I add a flag that says “CIP TK” with the page number.

Start at the end

After the table of contents, running heads, and chapter openers are checked, I head to the back matter. I use a piece of colored paper to isolate each line as I read. I still don’t need the red pencil; I mark any errors found back here in lead pencil. Glossary, notes, bibliography, and such are not the most exciting reading material, so it’s good to read them through while I’m fresh. They further engrave unusual names and terms of art into my mind so that they make more sense when you read the main body. Usually the running heads on the notes pages are “Notes to Pages 000-000.” These get filled out last, after the main body has been proofread, another reason I leave the Post-it notes with the chapter numbers in place until the end. In the bibliography and notes, I check for loose lines and incorrect line breaks, especially in URLs. When I wonder how to break a URL or how to style an unusual reference, Chicago has answers. The best style sheets provide examples of unusual references, too.

If anything seems odd, I have learned that it’s best to ask my project editor about it. I’ve had to redo the notes section for a book I worked on because I thought note numbers had been left off; instead, I was supposed to fill in the page number each note refers to. No fun. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle with a quick e-mail query.

Proofreading for sense

Corrections to the text are signaled by a slash mark (in lead pencil) in the text, with the correction out in the right margin. To be sure the corrections line up, I read one line at a time, moving a colored piece of paper down the page. Publishers do not want the corrections written between the lines, because they are too hard to see and decipher that way.

Finally, I start proofreading the main text. I use binder clips to separate what has been proofed from what has yet to be done.

The red pencil

The red pencil is used for very specific things: to circle or put a carat under note numbers and write the number (also circled) in red in the LEFT margin. I circle references to figures and tables in red, too, and write and circle them in red in the left margin.

The lead pencil

I correct errors by marking them in lead mechanical pencil (some publishers might prefer blue) with corrections in the right margin, lined up with the error.

Circling something in the margin signals to the compositor that it is not to be included in the text. Writing “sp” in the margin without circling it, for example, means add “sp” where indicated instead of spell out where indicated.

If the publisher provides a searchable pdf of the pages, I double-check to be sure that I caught all instances of a frequent error.

After proofreading the text

When I have finished proofreading the text, I go through and make sure that the figure numbers, table numbers, and note numbers are in order. Note numbers usually restart at 1 with each new chapter. Figure numbers might be continuous or they might be numbered like 1.1, 1.2, 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, etc. If there’s a list of figures, I make sure the page numbers are correct or fill them in if they are 000.

I fill in the page numbers in the notes running headers. This is another place where the big, clean table surface is helpful. I can have four stacks of pages: one for the text I have yet to go through for note numbers, one for the notes section I have yet to fill out, one for the (turned over) text I have gone through, and one for the notes pages (turned over) I have already completed.

Finally, I remove all the Post-it notes and binder clips, put everything back in order, and return the pages to the press.

Proofreading defined

Outside the book publishing industry, the term proofreading can have many different meanings. When it comes to books, though, it is a very specific stage. Proofreading is the last thorough, page-by-page look at a book, usually done simultaneously by the author and a freelancer, before it is sent to the printer for folding and gathering.

Proofreading is not the time for the proofreader (or the author) to change voice or style or decide that figures should be moved. Every change after first pages are typeset will cost the publisher money, whether the designer is in-house or freelance. The book’s project manager will go over the changes suggested by the proofreader, and anything that is not absolutely necessary will be crossed off in blue pencil with a big STET (let stand).

But some changes are unavoidable. If the running heads in one chapter are wrong, they must be changed. If a name is misspelled, it should be corrected. Widows and orphans should be fixed, and every caption should be scrutinized to make sure it fits its figure. There are also some changes that are expected, such as page numbers added to the table of contents and list of figures. Proofreaders will also add page numbers to the running heads in the notes section.

The social-media introvert

An application introvert, that’s what I am. I’ve been on Facebook for years—I love connecting with friends and colleagues there. It’s comfortable and informal, and I’ve learned how to interact without stepping on too many toes or getting my own stepped on. LinkedIn is a place I go to update my resume (but not very often, and I should really add a portfolio). I regularly use apps that help me keep track of time (Toggl), manage my projects (Scrivener), and remind me of things I need to do (Todoist). But when it comes to interacting with the wild world of Web at large, I get a scary feeling inside. Twitter and Google+, I’m looking at you.

Today I recommended that a self-publishing client take a look at Google+. His book is nearly ready to be released to the world, and it is so good. It deserves a solid fan base—it’s the kind of book some readers have been wanting to read forever. I’ve heard that Google+ works well for book promotion because it integrates with Google search so easily. Then I click on over to it myself, because I haven’t been there in forever. Oops. There he is, my client, with not one but two beautifully done pages, one for himself and one for his pen name. Uh, hi! Let me add you to my circles!

I also was reminded that Google+ has a good Scrivener users’ group, and I popped by there. Sure enough, there were some posts that proved to be useful, some answers to questions I’d been wrestling with. But I still felt odd posting a request, not quite understanding who was watching, not quite knowing what I was getting into. I don’t want to stumble into some place and irritate the regulars, you know?

Worse, I don’t know how to use it well. I am fine being stuck with accepting whatever comes at you in Facebook—at least it’s all coming from your friends—but in Google+ I want to see only a little bit of what the world has to offer. It overwhelms me every time I go there, as if I’m at a huge party with brilliant people and a scrumptious buffet and I can only huddle in my corner.

Pearl, a fluffy white Malti-poo, looking sad.

Everyone looks like they’re having so much fun!

Resolved: I will try to visit Google+ at least once a week for the next month. I’ve put it on my Todoist. Maybe someday I’ll also get over my Twitter trauma, caused when someone or something called Bruno Jaquet hacked into my account and broadcast about a thousand ugly tweets.


My proofreading tools

Binder clips
Post-it notes
Flags (provided by the publisher)
Red pencils and a small hand sharpener
A mechanical pencil
A finger moistener
A big pink eraser
My well-worn copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition.
A big, clean table with nothing else on it that allows for spreading out sections of the book if necessary.
A clean towel to spread over the surface to be sure that there’s no grease or moisture that could get on the pages.
Lately, I’ve been using a pair of adorable little reading glasses.

Proofreading portfolio

These are books that I have proofread for University of Texas Press. As I am affiliated with IndieBound, any purchases made via the links below will help support this site. You can also just use the links to learn more about the books listed.

Shop Indie Bookstores Luis E. Carranza and Fernando Luiz Lara (2015), Modern Architecture in Latin America: Art, Technology, and Utopia

Shop Indie Bookstores Joseph J. Keenan (2015), revised edition of Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish (I proofread some revised pages, not the entire book)

Shop Indie Bookstores Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi (2014), Rethinking Iranian Nationalism and Modernity

Shop Indie Bookstores William K. Black (2014), revised edition of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One

High Museum of Art (2014), Wynn Bullock

Joe Holley (2012), Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game

Carolyn Tate (2012), Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation

John Tutino, ed. (2012), Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States

Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz (2012), Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture

Carolyn Tuttle (2012), Mexican Women in American Factories

Cristóbal de Molina (2011), translated by Brian S. Bauer et al., An Account of the Fables and Rites of the Incas

Ann Pollard Rowe, Lynn A. Meisch, and others; Ann Pollard Rowe, ed. (2011), Costume and History in Highland Ecuador

Fabio López Lázaro (2011), The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez: The True Adventures of a Spanish American with 17th-Century Pirates

Scott Comar (2011), Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juárez and El Paso

Robin W. Doughty and Virginia Carmichael (2011), The Albatross and the Fish: Linked Lives in the Open Seas

Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph (2010), Spanish Texas, 1519-1821

Aníbal Gonzalez (2010), Love and Politics in the Contemporary Spanish American Novel

Cheleen Ann-Catherine Mahar (2010), Reinventing Practice in a Disenchanted World: Bourdieu and Urban Poverty in Oaxaca, Mexico

Jaime Javier Rodríguez (2010), The Literatures of the U.S.-Mexican War: Narrative, Time, and Identity

David Montejano (2010), Quixote’s Soldiers: A Local History of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1981 (recipient of the 2011 T. R. Fehrenbach Award from the Texas Historical Commission and the 2011 Tejas Foco Book Award from the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies)

Richard Graham (2010), Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780-1860 (recipient of the Bolton-Johnson Prize for the best book in English on Latin American history published in 2010)

Stephanie Merrim (2010), The Spectacular City, Mexico, and Colonial Hispanic Literary Culture

Raquel Romberg (2009), Healing Dramas: Divination and Magic in Modern Puerto Rico

Timothy J. Dunn (2009), Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement

Hugo G. Nutini and Barry L. Isaac (2009), Social Stratification in Central Mexico, 1500-2000

Carole M. Counihan (2009), A Tortilla Is Like Life: Food and Culture in the San Luis Valley of Colorado

Judith Noemí Freidenberg (2009), The Invention of the Jewish Gaucho: Villa Clara and the Construction of Argentine Identity

Anna Marie Sandoval (2008), Toward a Latina Feminism of the Americas: Repression and Resistance in Chicana and Mexicana Literature

An approach to indexing

A prospective client e-mailed me recently, asking that I describe my expertise indexing books of a certain discipline. It turns out I have none, but the author hired me to index the book anyway. Here is my reply, edited for anonymity:

My process when indexing does not depend so much on the discipline in which the book is written as on its subject matter. I try to approach each book with the needs of the person who will use the index in mind: as a reader who needs to find an anecdote that she recalls, as someone who picks up the book and flips through the index to see if it includes a topic of interest, or as a researcher who needs to find a certain statistic. I index people discussed in the book, as opposed to those whose research is cited (though sometimes the two overlap).

Anything that surprises or delights me also finds its way into the index—or at least into the draft that I send to the author for approval, which I try to make overly inclusive so that edits to it are mostly deletions (although one recent author convinced the press to keep my index exactly as I sent it rather than delete anything for the sake of saving space).

I provide that draft in Word with Track Changes locked on so that I can see what you would like to change and apply it in my indexing software, which ensures that alphabetization and page numbering remain correct even after any reorganization.

The formatting rules required by the publisher and Chicago style are my guidelines for providing subentries for any entry that shows up more than five or six times, as space allows. I also try to double post rather than use “see” references for important topics; if we think of something as “Voodoo economics,” we might be a little irritated to be sent over to “economics, Voodoo” instead of to the pages where it’s discussed. I try to use “see also” references to draw out threads for those who use the index as a research tool, and I also try to use them to create an impression of the narrative.

I use Sky indexing software with a macro that copies directly from the book’s pdf, and I have found that this combination, along with the close reading required for indexing, often reveals minor errors (a nickname spelled in two different ways, say, or a date whose digits are transposed but a hundred pages apart) that are otherwise very hard to catch.

I charge per indexable page, which excludes the frontmatter, any blank pages or pages that have zero entries, and bibliography.