A book publisher’s ability to have a finger on the pulse of cultural trends, media, and technology is key to a successful strategy that affects just about every phase of the publishing process. When examining publishing in the twenty-first century, copyediting may not be the first area that comes to mind as susceptible to change; however, copy editors have remained nimble and adept with their craft in a landscape of ebooks, web copy, digital tools, and a rapidly evolving lexicon. We spoke with Benjamin Dreyer, Vice President, Managing Editor and Copy Chief of the Random House division of Penguin Random House, who shares insights on the recent evolution of copyediting and gives advice for authors on working with their copyediting team.
How has copyediting evolved over the past few years?
Copyediting’s evolution over the last few years falls under two umbrellas: the nearly complete transition from copyediting on paper with pencil to copyediting in a Word file with tracked changes, and the need on the part of copy editors to keep up with the evolution of the English language and how people express themselves in prose. The latter, to be sure, has always been part of a copy editor’s responsibility, but language seems to evolve vastly faster than it used to, to the point where stylebooks and dictionaries can barely keep up, so copy editors are often wandering about in uncharted territory.
Despite trends and changes, copyediting continues to be what it’s always been: an attempt to help authors make their books into the best possible versions of themselves by offering advice on everything from basic spelling, punctuation, and grammar to—tactfully, respectfully—the niceties of prose style. (Copy editors can be quite handy for pointing out that you’ve grown overfond of a particular adjective, or have written an inadvertent rhyme—things like that.)
What are some of the most significant trends you’ve noticed?
It may seem a tiny thing—well, copyediting is built on tiny things—but brand-new compound words spring up and demand to be fused much more rapidly than in the past. Likely it took a few decades at least for “light bulb” to turn into “light-bulb” and then into “lightbulb”; the change from “Web site” to “Web-site” to “web-site” to “website” took only a few years. The very second someone invented the term “sock puppet,” someone else wanted to turn it into “sockpuppet.” These days we seem to skip the dainty hyphen phase and leap right to a closed-up compound.
Also, people seem to use less punctuation generally, particularly commas. I guess everyone’s in a hurry to get to the point. And on the larger scale, there’s the heightened awareness of how we write—the very words we use—about, among other things, race, gender, sexual identity, and disability. Readers have become highly and vocally sensitive about these topics; writers and copy editors have to be just as sensitive.
How do copy editors keep up with trends?
I know I spend vastly more time there than I ought, but if you want to observe the evolution of language, hang out on Twitter, the agora of the twenty-first century. You’ll find tons of writers and editors (and agents and publicists, etc.), and no one’s shy about expressing an opinion. Truly, I learn a lot there, and it’s certainly influenced my ideas about copyediting. (And a lot of other things.)
Do trends affect the copyediting of certain genres more than others?
Copy editors have always had to contend with, and attentively support, fiction—all writing, really, but particularly fiction—that colors outside the lines insofar as style and vocabulary are concerned, so that’s no different than it ever was. But if you’re not reading a lot of new stuff, if you’re not paying attention to how people are writing—whether you like it or approve of it or whatever—then you’re letting the language zoom past you, and that’s not good.
Is it common for authors to challenge or contest a copy editor’s suggestions?
As a copy editor I’d be unhappy if an author accepted every single one of my suggestions. I’d feel as if the author didn’t care enough to push back, or wasn’t even paying attention. If an author accepts, say, 85 or 90 percent of my copyediting, I’m overjoyed. Copy editors do their best to listen hard to an author’s prose and make helpful suggestions to improve it, but no one’s perfect, not any author, not any copy editor. But an author should, please, keep in mind that a copy editor is indeed trying to help, not trying to tell you that you can’t write. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve found over time that good writers love to be copyedited. As one writer—I wish I could remember who it was—said to me, “It’s like having a really good teeth cleaning, straight down to your feet.”
What advice would you give to authors when working with their copy editors?
The word “with” is tricky, because, for better or worse, authors aren’t really working with their copy editors. A copy editor copyedits a manuscript, an author reviews it; there really isn’t any conversation except on the page. But authors—at least in my group—can subsequently have a good deal of contact with their in-house production editors—the ones who squire a book’s text through copyediting and proofreading on its way to publication—and that’s an important working relationship. If you’re puzzled over something or have questions as you review your copyediting, your production editor can certainly help clarify.
Does your advice differ for a first-time author vs. a veteran author?
Not especially, though one nice thing about being a repeat author is that more than likely—if your first book’s gone well and everyone’s happy—you’ll work again (and again and again) with the same production editor and, as possible, the same copy editor. Thus everyone knows what everyone else likes or doesn’t. As an occasional (very occasional) copy editor myself I’ve worked with one particular author on, to date, three books. We can pretty much read each other’s minds by now.
What is the one thing you would like authors to take away from the copyediting process?
It’s quite possible that no one will ever read your book as carefully—right down to the nuclear level—as your copy editor. Enjoy that.
Dreyer is currently working on a witty, informative guide to writing “good English” that will be published by Penguin Random House in 2019.
If you’re interested in more about copyediting, check out this Author News article from a previous edition:
Milena Schmidt is Senior Manager, Digital Communication for Penguin Random House.