From the Editor

Townhouse Notes: Writing, Copyediting, and Your First Book

Allison Miller, December 2017

The AHA TownhouseA friend sent a slightly panicked text after she’d gotten her copyedited manuscript back from the university press publishing her first book. Since the press publishes top-notch titles in her field, she assumed that someone would eventually rework her book for style. But the copyedits seemed to be only simple tweaks in capitalization, punctuation, and the like.

No one told her that copyediting doesn’t mean developmental editing or line editing, which are more engaged with structure and style. And scholarly presses haven’t had copyeditors on staff for decades. A number of presses now send manuscripts to publisher-services companies to manage copyediting. (These companies can bundle services from printing to design to production to copyediting and proofreading. Perspectives works with one for design, production, and printing.)

I talked to a handful of university press editors about copyediting, and they confirmed that my friend’s experience wasn’t unique. Nancy Toff, vice president and an executive editor at Oxford University Press, said that even when she started at OUP 26 years ago, there were no editors on staff whose job was “pure” copyediting. Across the industry today, it’s “almost all freelance.”

Despite rumors that some presses offshore copyediting to countries where there are few speakers of English, no one I spoke with offered specific reports of this. But some presses do send manuscripts to managers abroad to oversee the press’s regular store of freelancers. These “traffic cops,” as Toff called them, might be based in such far-flung places as India. OUP uses more than one publisher-services company to manage its whole production process, including copyediting. But the press, she said, “insists” that all of its copyeditors be based in the United States (or the United Kingdom, for the books it publishes in Britain).

First monographs might not get much TLC. Michael McGandy, a senior editor at Cornell University Press and editorial director of the Three Hills imprint, said that books range from trade titles with mainstream crossover potential to “discipline books,” which speak to a small group of experts within a discipline (like history). Generally, presses expect the latter to sell fewer copies, so they devote fewer resources to them. Toff had similar thoughts: “A first monograph will have a smaller audience, and the purpose of the book is to establish an author’s reputation. It’s speaking only to the academy, and the academy is less picky about matters of diction and style.” The academy, to its credit, will sacrifice style in favor of clarity.

But situations vary. “Every press is different and every editor is different,” Toff explained. The line between line editing and copyediting, for example, can be blurry. McGandy emphasized that manuscript editors sometimes devote significant attention to discipline books. Authors concerned about these issues should talk with their acquisitions editor. “People are reasonably frank about how copyediting gets farmed out,” he said.

Where do hopes of stylistic intervention come from? Beyond stereotypes of editors devoted to preserving the integrity of the language, most of us have had, over the years, professors who care about writing and mark up the work of their most dedicated students. This is how many of us learn to write: by absorbing these deep critiques and trying to do better the next time. But editors aren’t our teachers. And what our teachers were doing was not copyediting, though we might have called it that.

If you’re concerned about your writing, there’s a chance you’re being too hard on yourself. Having your writing graded for years can lead you to believe it’s never good enough. But give yourself and your writing a chance. And find friends who can talk you down from a panic, just in case.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.


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