Working with Your Editor: Your Relationship with Your Copyeditor

Dawn Durante's picture

Guest post by Amy Sherman, managing editor, University of Pittsburgh Press

The author-copyeditor relationship is unique in the writing and publication process. As an author, when you write and revise your manuscript, you seek out feedback, often over multiple drafts and most often from someone you know—a trusted colleague, for example. Your interpretation of that feedback, then, is colored by your relationship with the person providing it. However, you’ll receive only one round of copyediting on your project, and it will be done by someone you don’t know and had no say in selecting. With the copyeditor, you’re dealing with an unknown quantity, and your relationship takes place entirely through their edits to your work and your review of their edits.

After your manuscript is copyedited, your project editor at the press will send you the manuscript files for you to review. In addition to the tracked edits in the text, you’ll also see queries from the copyeditor about possible revisions, requests for clarification, or questions to you to confirm the accuracy of certain details. As a managing editor, I see all the manuscripts that go through copyediting at our press, including the author responses to edits and queries. Of these, the most effective are characterized by clear and responsive communication rooted in an understanding that the copyeditor is applying their own expertise toward helping the author improve the piece. The most unsuccessful responses are those in which the author has taken an argumentative or defensive tone, or one that talks down to the copyeditor.

In a way, a certain amount of miscommunication during copyedit review is to be expected. Writing effective queries is a skill that copyeditors have to work to develop (for examples, see Good Practice for Author Queries). Authors, on the other hand, don’t necessarily receive coaching on responding to edits and queries. Author guides to the copyediting process, while helpful, focus on the nuts and bolts. Moreover, while a copyeditor may work on a dozen projects or more in a year, authors have far fewer opportunities to practice responding to copyediting than to other kinds of feedback, and have much less experience with exploring and defining their role in the relationship.

My aim here, then, is to offer some insights on the interpersonal aspects of your copyedit review that aren’t covered in the letter you’ll get from your project editor.

The most important point for authors to understand about the author-copyeditor relationship is that your copyeditor is your ally, not an antagonist. Many academics—and indeed, anyone familiar with the tone of online discourse—are used to writing in a defensive posture, anticipating any responses to their writing as potential attacks on their arguments. When reviewing edits in this frame of mind, even neutral or friendly queries may be difficult to interpret as anything other than the same slings and arrows. If you tend to think of your writing as something to be defended, it may help to think of your copyeditor as someone on your team, who wants to help you strengthen your defensive line. Approaching the copyediting process with a more collaborative mindset, and thinking of copyedit review as a team effort, will allow you to think of questions about accuracy or requests for clarity as complementary to your own goals.

The second most important thing to be aware of is that your copyeditor is the first—and possibly the only—person in the entire publication process to read every single word of your manuscript, from the dedication to Z in the bibliography. This means that a copyeditor may also be the first person to raise a potential issue in a manuscript—perhaps a problem with the citations, or language that is inadvertently biased or exclusionary. When this happens, most authors are relieved to have it caught. But sometimes, especially when it involves pervasive revisions, an author will try to dismiss those copyedits or requests for changes by arguing that no one has brought it up before. I would caution against this. Your advisor, your writing group, your acquiring editor, and your peer reviewers read for the big picture. Your copyeditor, on the other hand, reads for fine detail, and it’s their job to catch things that other people don’t.

That said, you do not have to accept every revision that your copyeditor suggests! The exchange with your copyeditor is truly a collaboration, where compromises are often made—on both sides.  While there won’t be much room for negotiation over changes that have been made for mechanics, house style, or citation format, author review is always important for any edits for prose style and clarity. This is why we as copyeditors always track our changes—not to show you where you went “wrong” but to make sure you have a chance to correct our work if we’ve made a misstep.

Sometimes a copyeditor will make a change that alters your meaning or reflects a misunderstanding on their part, and you’ll need to reject the edit. When this happens, you can simply highlight the change and comment “stet” (“let it stand”), but it is much more helpful if you respond with a brief comment in which you (kindly!) let them know why the change doesn’t work for you, or explain a convention in your field that they may have been unaware of. You might even make an alternative revision, or restate your point in a comment reply, using different wording. In turn, your copyeditor should then be able to resolve the issue that led them to make the edit in a way that accurately reflects your intention.

If your copyeditor has queried or suggested revising something that seems perfectly clear to you and your first reaction is to say just that—perhaps a little huffily (we’ve all been there!)—it may be worth taking a moment to pause and consider where the disconnect between intention and uptake might have happened. If you can make a small tweak now to prevent future misunderstandings, that will increase the chances of your book being well received. Remember that you wrote the book because you’re the expert, and you want your book to be understood by readers who aren’t as familiar with your subject as you are. And while this shouldn’t have to be said, there’s never a good reason to take a condescending or patronizing tone.

Finally, it’s unfortunate but true that copyediting is done badly sometimes. We once had a new copyeditor who asked interesting questions in their queries but missed too many errors and wasn’t diligent enough about consistency. In another case, a copyeditor was overzealous in making stylistic changes that weren’t really appropriate for that type of work. More broadly, some copyeditors have prioritized imposing a uniform, institutional “correctness” at the expense of an author’s voice or even doing harm to the writer’s identity—a problem that the field has come to recognize, and many are working to overcome (see past ACES: Society of Editors conferences for some examples of these discussions). If you’re concerned about the quality of the copyediting that your manuscript has gotten, you should absolutely let your project editor know. It’s most helpful if you can provide specific, concrete examples of your concerns, as well as a sense of the scale of the problem, so that your project editor can step in and propose solutions as needed. 

Publishing a book is, at heart, as much an act of collaboration as it is one of creativity. Keep in mind that your publisher’s professional reputation is on the line, too, and they want to help you produce a book that you can be proud of. And it’s when you and your copyeditor can cocreate a mutually beneficial relationship, with trust and respect on both sides, that you’re most likely to succeed.

Amy Sherman is the managing editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press and a freelance developmental editor and copyeditor. She maintains a list of resources for those interested in careers in publishing, which you can find at a link in her Twitter bio @andcleverness.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post! Or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing. Find us on Twitter @HNetBookChannel and use the hashtag #FeedingTheElephant.