Madeleine Robins 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.