The editorial process: A light introduction
In general, the editorial process comprises three tasks: copy editing, proofreading, and indexing. Although all three fall under the editorial purview, the first two tasks process content that’s been supplied to them as inputs, whereas the last mentioned generates fresh content — a list of entries called the index — on the basis of content supplied to it as input, and so, in a narrow sense, is not editing at all, although it is an equally intricate and sensitive task. Here, we discuss the first two.
The author writes, the publisher publishes; the author is the owner of the content; why then is the author so heavily — sometimes critically — dependent on the editing process? This article presents a brief introduction to the editing process, answering the why, what, and how of the process. Of course, there are many types of editorial approaches, depending on the nature of content, intended readership, and market. Editors edit a magazine article, a newspaper article, a government report, a balance sheet, a journal article, or a book; they edit online publications as well as print. Surely, the editorial approach to all these types of content cannot be the same. They differ widely; in addition, handling print versions requires an additional edit once the manuscript has been typeset, referred to as the editorial proofread. This introduction addresses for the most part the print book product.
As a side note, the term editor means different things in different places. An acquisition editor, for example, is rather a product manager, getting subject matter experts into writing content that publishers deem is required by a community of readers (if you are an institute publisher) or would sell well (if you are a for-profit); a developmental editor works closely with the author on the scope, veracity, and coverage of the content; a copy editor — the position discussed here — quite simply makes the content fit for print from primarily a production standpoint; a proofing editor does much what a copy editor does, only it’s on proof pages so she may not expect to find too many problems; and there is a permissions editor, a production editor, and many others. And sans the adjectives, editor standing alone might mean something totally different: perhaps someone running a newspaper, deciding what gets on print every week. So you really need to be clear on what an editor you may chance to meet actually does.
Why does a publisher need a copy editor?
As soon as content has been accepted for publication, the publisher performs what is called a substantive or a developmental edit (mentioned above). This edit intends to improve coverage and ensure overall veracity of the manuscript and involves suggestions regarding content, scope, and length. A good deal of rewriting or reorganization — including improved tables, figures, sections, and display features, even new chapters — may result. Issues regarding permissions would be addressed. The manuscript is now ready as far as overall content goes. What follows is a detailed editing for sense, a process in which every chapter is analyzed and checked for possible gaps, contradictions, and redundancies. This process generally comprises two stages: technical editing, which addresses book elements such as notes, bibliographies, heads, and tables, and language editing, which addresses spelling, grammar, word choice, transition, clarity, and coherence. This last mentioned task — line-by-line editing for sense — goes by the term copy editing. Depending on quality of incoming content, a light, medium, or heavy copy edit may be requested by the publisher. A book in its first edition generally requires a medium or heavy edit: you would expect content for an eighth edition to be lot better than that for a first edition; the former — most of it, that is — has been copy edited seven times and the latter not at all.
Therefore, we see that, although content accepted for publishing has been reviewed and reorganized, a publisher needs someone to set the author’s manuscript in order. Writing hundreds or thousands of pages of content in a coherent and accurate manner without errors of grammar, consistency, and coverage is not easy, even for good subject matter experts with writing skill and experience. Although a developmental edit has taken care of a manuscript’s content and scope overall, the manuscript obviously has a long way to go before it is fit for print: it still needs to be checked and corrected for spelling, grammar, consistency, focus, and coherence. An example might help you here. Suppose, for instance, a developmental edit has removed an appendix because it’s redundant; what happens then to some sentence sitting somewhere in Chapter 5, for example, that cross-references the now-deleted appendix? The author probably wrote this chapter several months back. He doesn’t remember — and doesn’t need to. Because the copy editor is there waiting to address such potential problems, setting in order per the publisher’s house style the various book elements, such as notes and bibliography, appendixes, glossaries, tables, art, and other display elements; ensuring that overlooked permissions are flagged for the author and publisher; and finally reading line by line, correcting for spelling, grammar, word choice, accuracy, and organization. And, mind you, this is a thankless job. Just consider. A book is composed of hundreds of elements: citations, figures, notes for figures, lists, extracts, extracts in-line, extracts on display; the list goes on. And every one of them — big and small, major and minor — needs to free of errors. Did you read past the last sentence? You may well have; your mind supplied the missing connecting verb. That’s something a good copy editor would catch. True, the title of the book on the cover should not have a spell error. Just the same way, every tiny end note in the book’s end matter needs to have an end period; every initial in an author’s name in a reference entry needs to have a period. This is a monumental task, requiring patience, indefatigability, and dedication.
Consistency and style
Common to both technical and language editing is the requirement of consistency, an important aspect of editing, and style. Having “five children” in one chapter and “8 children” in another seems somehow troubling to the human mind: we find something respectable only if we see uniformity and predictability in it; that might explain the overwhelming significance attached to consistency in a copy edit. As well, consistent presentation and treatment makes life easier for a reader. In technical texts, consistency is the name of the game; using “500 kW-hr/day,” “500 kilowatt-hours per day,” “five hundred kW-hr-d<sup>1</sup>” at different instances not only confuses readers but also accurately reflects the lack of coherence and standardization in the mind of the author and copy editor. In short, the reader develops a sort of disregard for the content and may suspect the authenticity of the content itself — regardless of its quality.
Style refers to a preference of how an element may be set. How would you wish an H1 head to be presented on the typeset page? Now, the text attributes that control the presentation of text are many, such as font, point size, spacing before and after, capitalization (all caps, headline, or sentence), font style (roman or italics), even font color. Deciding which combination would apply to a particular textual element — in our example, all H1 heads in the manuscript — is akin to deciding on the style for that element. In a nutshell, that’s style — the combination of textual attributes by which every element in text is presented with or identified by on the typeset page; therefore, a style is nothing but a preference. More important, style comes into reckoning only when there is more than one valid way in which an element could be presented. When there is only one way, there is no question of preference: we have no choice. And speaking of preference, whose preference are we referring to here? When it comes to books, monographs, or any such works that are seen as an original as well as voluminous accomplishment, it is generally the author’s preference; when it comes to magazine or journal articles, it is generally the publisher’s preference. It is almost never the copy editor’s preference.
Grammar and sense
Ensuring good grammar and correct spellings are two essentials of copy editing. You first need to fix what’s broken; then comes the question of improving it. Before you suggest to the author what in your opinion is a better word, ensure you have not missed spell errors; ensure you have not missed indisputable errors of grammar, style, or consistency.
Although pruning redundant text is a favorite among copy editors (like changing “in order to” to “to”!), they more importantly catch what’s missing; what’s missing could often be a straightforward verb, as we saw; what’s missing could also turn out to be something slightly more subtle, something that a word processor would not spot; please read what follows: capital punishment is our society’s recognition of the paucity of human life. What do you make of it? The sentence is grammatically fine; but does it make sense? No, it does not, unless you substitute “paucity” with “sanctity,” which would make Orrin Hatch happy as well. At advanced levels, or where a publisher requests that the copy editor be a subject matter expert as well, a flawed argument or discussion would need to be corrected or flagged for the author: for example, a passage that discusses the causes of the Second World War but leaves out the effect the Depression had on ordinary Germans. Gross historical errors or obvious errors of fact would also need to be removed. What follows is a massive historical typo, so to speak: Napoleon fought his last battle, at Waterloo, on June 15, 1715. A good copy editor would catch that, and change “1715” to “1815”; that good copy editor would also flag the sentence for the author; citing what? Ambiguity. When you write “Napoleon fought his last battle,” do you mean he died fighting that battle or lived on but never fought another battle again; we know for a fact he lived on, but the sentence remains ambiguous and requires rephrasing. A well copy edited text would be free of grammar and spelling errors; it would also be free of errors of meaning and ambiguity; content needs to make sense.
Setting content in print (or on a webpage)
Copy editors remove barriers between the author and the reader, a hackneyed thing to write, but true. There is another stakeholder, however, that copy editors need to keep happy or at least well informed: the typesetter. The latter needs to know which head is an H1 head and which is a list head, which is the main entry in a vertical list and which is the subentry. Having read the text for sense, the copy editor makes such things clear to the typesetter, by applying codes directly on the content or using the style gallery of a word processor. If content is copy edited exclusively for the web, copy editors work on an HTML platform, checking the output of their coding directly on a webpage, for which they use what’s called a cascading style sheet. All this perhaps sounds technical, but is in fact fairly simple.
So what are the objectives of copy editing?
Quite simply, a copy editor makes the manuscript fit for publishing, while considering production, time, costs, and quality.
There are two objectives. The copy editor’s primary big-picture objective is to remove obstacles between the author’s intended communication and the reader’s understanding while keeping the publisher happy. Another important objective is to complete this process in such a manner that error-free typesetting occurs, without major rework or delays. The copy editor helps the typesetter perform his task well, for example, by ensuring that all important information on how each element in the manuscript is to be typeset is given to the typesetter. Because the copy editor is the only person apart from the author to read the entire manuscript line by line, she is in the best position to control all downstream production processes and ensure that they occur in an economical manner without affecting the integrity of the text.
What does a copy editor do?
Therefore, essentially, the copy editor performs the following two tasks.
• The copy editor imposes consistency on the manuscript per the style recommended by the publisher, comprising the task of setting in order the bibliographic system, tables and art, head levels, and so forth. Following this task, the copy editor performs a language edit, fixing errors in spelling, grammar, coherence, organization, and completeness. As mentioned, the copy editor interacts with the publisher and the author to make the manuscript fit for publishing, and this task includes working with the author and ensuring that the author is satisfied with whatever changes that are required to be made.
• The copy editor gives clear, unambiguous information to the typesetter as to how the various elements in the manuscript require to be typeset. In this way, the copy editor actually aims to error-proof the typesetting process, helping the typesetter and ensuring that she does a good job, as well as ensuring that the presentation of text on the printed page is how the author intended it to be.
How is the copy editing task performed?
Copy editing comprises the below tasks, performed in the order listed:
1. Clean-up and elegant manuscript presentation
2. Element identification — the typesetter needs to know exactly which element in the book is what, so he can apply the approved design for that element
3. Technical editing, which goes by another term as well: markup
4. Language editing
5. Incorporation of author’s replies to queries during copy edit and finalizing the text for typesetting
Most important, the copy editor generates an editorial style sheet, the single most important document relevant for downstream processes, particularly for the editorial proofreader. In the style sheet, the copy editor records all of the existing and applicable styles as well as the decisions he has made during copy editing, all of the author’s preferences and publisher’s recommendations. The copy editor also uses the style sheet to alert the proofreader to any potentially troublesome areas the latter may be required to focus on.
Why edit again on proofs?
You might imagine that the editorial process stops once copy editing is over. Such a lot of work has already gone into the manuscript. And the manuscript has been typeset. What could possibly be left to do from an editorial standpoint? Plenty. Once the author has returned copy edited manuscripts, the copy editor resolves the author’s replies and posts the manuscript for typesetting. As you may know, typesetting is a huge process by itself, involving correct application — often correct interpretation — of many complicated design specifications. Obviously, such a thing as design did not exist during copy editing because then we were concerned more about content and element identification, as opposed to how all the elements would actually appear on the printed page. The more complicated the design, the tougher the job for the typesetter — and the editorial proofreader. Yes, we have now arrived at another vital part of the editorial process: editorial proofreading, actually a misnomer, because a good deal more than a proofread is expected at this stage. Generally, the process comprises three tasks — a design review, a pdf compare, and a sense read — and is performed on the typeset pages, or proofs. So what do these tasks mean? Why are they performed?
We just discussed that typesetting involves design specifications. True, the typesetter has done his job well, looked up the sample design, applied styles correctly, set spacings and indentations per specification, and generally ensured that the pages are how the publisher and author envisaged. However, we need an individual with editorial skill to validate the design application process. Is the vertical distance between an H1 head and the subsequent first paragraph per specification? Is the space between lines of running text — the leading — fine? Is the font right? What of font color? The color of different elements? For example, the publisher might have intended a particular shade of blue for a box feature, and a particular shade of green for another feature or section. Who’s going to validate all this stuff and certify that the proofs are in fact per the sample design? It’s the editorial proofreader. (And let’s call her the proof editor, from now on, because that’s what in effect the editorial proofreader is.) Just as the copy editor had to look up hundreds of type-codes, the code that represents each unique element, the proof editor has to look up hundreds of designs, and validate them very well indeed, because after the proofing edit, the pages go straight to the printer, not counting some macro-level checks that the project manager would make later on. To summarize, the proof editor makes a thorough check that design of the proofs meets the design sample. Discrepancies are highlighted to the typesetter, who fixes them. A somewhat parallel process occurs independent of the proof editing process, which is basically a QC check on the proofs; it represents a check on proof pages with complete focus on design alone, not on content — a redundancy check.
Another pretty important task at this stage concerns the question whether all text, figures, art, photos, tables — everything really — that’s ended up on the proofs is really what the author sent across. You may think this task is redundant. But think of all the hands through which the manuscript has passed; all the text updates the author may have given during copy editing, after copy editing; all the changes the copy editor had to make; and all the adjustments the typesetter had to make. Somewhere, there could well be an unintended, accidental change. Or perhaps the copy editor simply missed an update from the author. These suspicions are valid. Therefore, the proof editor compares the proof pages with the original manuscripts posted by the author, not considering editorial changes. Any discrepancies outside of editorial changes are cause for serious concern, and are treated accordingly.
The sense read, again
Now comes the final task: the sense read. Here, the proof editor performs exactly the same function as did the copy editor on the author’s manuscript pages, except that, of course, the vast tangle of content issues, inconsistencies, and discrepancies has already been addressed by the copy editor, so typically the proof editor has a less difficult task at hand on the sense read. The proof editor validates for grammar, spelling, coherence, hierarchy of heads, quite simply everything the copy editor addressed, only that the proof editor may expect to find fewer errors (residual copy edit errors), because the copy editor has fixed most of them. Sense read actually means ensuring the content makes sense, the cross-references to tables and art, for example, make sense, everything about the book makes sense! This brings us to a variation of the sense read. This is the “cold” read. Why cold? You have to read the content from a distance, without getting too intimate with the text. Look at it just as a new reader would — as a critical, discerning, knowledgeable new reader would — and try to find errors. A cold read may not be as detailed as a sense read, though. A thoroughly constructed editorial style sheet from the copy editor could go a long way in simplifying the task of the proof editor.
With these three tasks completed, the proofs are ready to go. If there are too many corrections, you could have a second proof, which is usual, but seldom a second proofread, unless a typographical disaster has occured. Changes at subsequent stages are taken care of by the typesetter.
Last but not the least, the intervention levels of light, medium, and heavy apply here as well, and cover both content and design recommendations. As well, in the case of journal articles and other such publications where time and speed of communication takes precedence over other aspects of the product, the proofing edit is generally — though not always — skipped.