Text Wranglers

February 24th, 2008

You write your story or novella or book alone. You might get criticism–excellent or otherwise–from Beta readers or workshops, but the hard work of putting words on paper is done by you and you alone. (Let’s not spin into the question of collaboration. I’m trying to make a point here.) So say you send the story or book off to a publisher somewhere and–Glory of Glories!–they accept it. From that point on, for better or worse, you’re hip deep in collaboration.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Publication is a group exercise.

First, there’s your editor, who will read your text and perhaps have questions or problems, and want you to address them. There are as many ways to edit a book as there are editors; some closely line edit, others look at the big picture, some have quirks, even as you have quirks (c’mon, you know you do). Working with an editor is a negotiation: Editor may want to change something you don’t want to change, and if that happens, you need to be able to explain the why of it. Standing up and saying “It’s my story and I don’t wanna” won’t cut it. Besides, the editor is trying to help you clarify your ideas and make the story easier for the reader to get into. This is a good thing. A good editor is a gift above rubies.

That’s one. Then, when you and the Editor are happy with the text, it goes to the copyeditor. If a good editor is above rubies, a good copyeditor is a gift above…I dunno. Enriched plutonium, maybe? A copyeditor finds all the potentially embarrassing misspellings, grammatical flaws, errors of fact, inconsistencies in the text, and points them out so that you can fix them. If your character had green hair on page 7 and red hair on page 52, and no visit to the Beauty Parlor in between, the copyeditor will query it. There are copyeditors who are intrusive (I have heard tales of horror about a copyeditor who, not understanding the tropes of science fiction, changed things around because there was no such thing as faster-than-light travel) and copyeditors who are inflexible, but there are many good copyeditors, and some are truly brilliant. Copyediting is an immensely complicated dance between absolute correction (it’s “accommodate”, not “acommodate”), flexibility (you can use “gray” or “grey,” but it has to be consistent) and eidetic memory (Query: on page 17 Flaviola is princess; on page 38 she’s a baroness. ??), and it helps if the copyeditor has a real devotion to language and story. Not everyone can be a copywriter.

So you get your copyedit back, you grimace a little at some things, you make corrections, explain why you really meant Faster-than-Light and stet those corrections, and return the manuscript to your editor. In the olden days there would be a typesetter who keystroked the book; these days, in most cases, things are done via computer, and you may be asked for a textfile, which can then be formatted.

That’s another thing, the formatting. In the early days of POD books rolled off the press looking pretty much like a Xerox of a page printed from Microsoft Word–clean, perhaps, but without art. When your book is copyedited, or perhaps while it’s being copyedited, it’s also being designed by a person who can balance the complicated issues of type size, readability, page count, unit cost, and still–one hopes–come up with a look that somehow reflects the content and mood of the book. There’s a certain amount of juju in book design–I’ve seen a really good designer pick up a manuscript, heft it, and predict the page count on the basis of weight alone. So there’s another collaborator you didn’t even think about.

So your work has been designed and typeset. Now you and a proofreader each get a copy of the galley (that’s the typeset text) to go over for errors that might have occurred in the inputting of the copyediting corrections or in the setting of the type. A copyeditor may still find things to query (I’ve done so) but at this point it’s mostly a matter of cleaning things up and making sure that the computer hasn’t dumped a bunch of weird code in the middle of your pivotal battle scene. Like copyeditors, proofreaders have an eye–and a passion–for language and its rules, and a memory like sprung steel.

Those are the text wranglers, your collaborators who help turn your work from words on a page to a book or story. You may not love it when one of them questions what you’ve done, but they’re working for the good of your words.

Robert Legault, sometime Managing Editor at Tor Books and lifelong text wrangler, died last week. The world of writing and publishing and words is poorer.  Those of us who will never have him work on a book of ours have lost out.  So my point is, no one does this publishing alone, and if you’re lucky enough to find a good Text Wrangler, cherish him or her. Tell your editor if you get a good copyedit, or if you love the design of your book. Your collaborators in the process don’t get a lot of feedback, and they truly appreciate it when someone notices their part.

5 Responses to “Text Wranglers”

  1. Charles Spurron 25 Feb 2008 at 8:41 am

    Some of my favorite books growing up were published by Tor Books. It’s incredible sometimes to consider all of the different minds that contribute to the content we enjoy (be it written, sung, or filmed).

    RIP Mr. Legault.

    And thanks for that write up; I’ve always been curious as to the path written material takes from the time it leaves an author’s desk to the time it lands on published papers.

  2. Val McDermidon 26 Feb 2008 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for that clear and thoughtful post. I’ve been blessed with a great editor — we’ve been together for 16 years and as many books — and I know how much better she has helped me to become. I’ve never understood authors who consider themselves somehow above the editorial process. Why would you not want to get better?

  3. Gyp Orienson 06 Apr 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I have a question:

    How does one get to become a copyeditor or proofreader?

    I’m pretty good at things like that, at grammar problems and noticing inconsistencies, but all the advice I hear is how to become published or be a writer or an editor, not a copyeditor/proofreader.

  4. Madeleine Robinson 06 Apr 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Generally it helps to know someone who’s publishing something, and get some experience proofing for free. Make sure you know all the proofing and marking-up marks (they’re usually in the dictionary, and I’m sure they’re all over the web). Then write to a bunch of managing editors at publishing houses and ask if they have a test you could take (most do) and if you could do a manuscript for them on spec (meaning, you don’t get paid unless they like the work you’ve done).

    There are doubtless books on how to do it (although I tend to mistrust instructional books on general principal), and I’ve seen scams on the lines of “make big money reading books!”–you’re never going to make big money, but you can make a living at it.

    Where you live isn’t much of a deal, as most publishers deal via overnight mail and FedEx a lot of the time.

    That help?

  5. Gyp Orienson 17 Apr 2008 at 11:44 pm

    Yes, it does! Thanks a lot! I don’t know anyone who’s publishing anything, but I do have experience proofing–other’s papers, etc. I may apply to my University paper to be a copy editor (I saw a position open on an application) soon as well. I also know most of the marks, but I should learn the rest of them I guess… there’s no good being informal in such a situation.

    I’ll copy down this info for future reference, and also look into it more on my own time.

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