Saturday, March 12, 2011


“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I whispered in relief. It wasn’t because I’d just sent in my third round of copyediting corrections, though I was glad to get them off my desk; it was because my absolutely incredible copyeditor had saved me—again.

The copyedited manuscript of my memoir had arrived a few days earlier for my review. It came as an e-mail attachment. Prior to seeing “copyedit” in the filename, I wasn’t sure the project had reached that stage, the last and most routine edit before typesetting.

My publisher had said my book was in “line editing,” but even with my publishing background I didn’t know what the term meant. I hoped the manuscript wasn’t undergoing yet another content edit. If so, could I endure it? I’d completed six drafts by the time It Started with Dracula was accepted for publication, and with every revision it had become a slightly different book. Maybe you’ve experienced that evolution, known to some of us as “Can’t-Leave-It-Alone Syndrome.”

Before offering me a contract, my publisher read my manuscript and then hired someone else to read it and offer a second opinion, as a doctor would. In fact, he was a doctor—a book doctor. Some of us like to think we don’t need a book doctor; I always thought they were hired in dire cases, when the author wasn’t much of a writer. Live and learn.

After I’d signed my contract, my publisher recommended that I work with the book doctor on my own to cut the thousands of words required to bring my manuscript to an acceptable length. That’s tough to do alone, and the mere idea caused me to panic. My first thought was to chop entire chapters: “Who’d miss this?” I recklessly asked the four walls of my condo as I noted massive deletions for the book doctor’s review.

Fortunately, the book doctor was very, very good. He recommended a different approach. It took two weeks of intense rewriting on my part and an extra pillow under me on my office chair, but the subtle changes I made—a word here, a phrase there—worked. The story was preserved, my writing voice was preserved, and the word count was acceptable. I was thrilled.

The next step, the line edit-slash-copyedit, made me nervous all over again. If writers’ words are our babies, you might understand my desire to protect mine until they were locked in by the printing press. Little did I know that, while I worried about “my precious manuscript,” the copyeditor was finding a rather big mistake that I’d made.

She saved my neck.

While she was making style changes and flagging the occasional confusing passage, my copyeditor discovered a glitch in the timeline that spanned four chapters. I’d incorrectly written that we arrived somewhere on Friday when it was actually Thursday, and the missing day threw the story off. “I have a kind of radar for that,” she said when I thanked her.

Radar: It’s the perfect word to describe the mysterious element that transcends skill, training, and experience to set the best editors apart. Where does radar originate? Is it innate, or cumulative? All I know is this: Some editors have it, and others don’t. I was lucky that mine did.

I hate to admit to a second instance of screwing up a time sequence, but after I’d fixed the first glitch and sent it off, the copyeditor found another one at the last minute. Like the first, it would have been a disaster had it reached print.

Here’s the thing: Writing can’t be an ego trip. If it is, the publishing process will likely snap you out of it. Becoming an author has taught me that I don’t know everything, I’m not always right, and I make mistakes. As a writer, I need others’ eyes on my work. I need their radar.

I fixed the second glitch, grateful that both the copyeditor and the book doctor had found the flaws in my manuscript at the best possible time--while it still was a manuscript. They’d seen what I hadn’t, and they’d made me look better on the page. That’s the point, after all.

I’ve worked alongside some of the best editors in the business, but a career in educational publishing does not necessarily prepare one to become an author of nonfiction. The terminology is different; the processes can be different; and working it from the other side is definitely different. I’ve had to be led along.

Occasionally I write about poor editing in this blog, but I am totally appreciative of the people whose meticulous work behind the scenes makes an author look her best. I’ll end this post as I began it: “Thank you, thank you, thank you."

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