Claire King


The Novel Edits (Part 2)

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Claire - 24 Comments

In September I met my editor, Helen, to go through the structural edits for The Night Rainbow. If you missed it, you can read about that here. The next part of the editing process, which happened in quite a whirl last week, was the copyedits.

I thought that the copyeditor was there to ‘correct my mistakes’. I was really looking forward to what she would find, because before submitting I’d already done many passes of edits for typos, punctuation, and grammatical errors. I’d also paid attention to ‘continuity’, drawing up detailed maps of locations and timelines with character clothing, mealtimes etc. I didn’t go so far as a style sheet, but I’d thought about it.

Last week was quite an education…

My copyeditor got in touch and she said my book was ‘astonishing’. I loved her immediately. She said she was sending over the queries, and that there ‘weren’t many’. There were, in fact, 10 pages of them. 175 in total. And these were just the queries – obvious typos and missing punctuation had already been corrected without bothering me.

The copyedit was much more than ‘just’ about correcting mistakes. Yes there were some, but attention was also paid to to smoothing out inconsistencies in style, for example where I had used ‘grownup’ vs ‘grown up’. My editor also checked facts, questioning things as odd as ‘are puffballs safe to eat?’ and the correct references made to music. Despite my best efforts there were still ‘continuity’ queries – one minute a door was closed, the next it was open…

Responding to the queries took hours and hours. Agreeing that I should change from one kind of punctuation to another was an easy one. But where the suggestion was to choose a different word or re-phrase something it was much harder. Even though I could agree that it was necessary, working within the vocabulary limits of the narrator took a lot of thought and deliberation.

By the time I reached the end of the query list I was feeling quite anxious. Had I managed to get back into the ‘voice’ of the book seamlessly? Had I made the ‘right’ changes? And what about all the mistakes? As soon as a query drew my attention to something I then spotted the same mistake over and over in the text. Even though my editor had told me that she only queried something once and then it would apply throughout, it was very unnerving to see the repeated mistakes and inconsistencies cropping up again and again.

But the biggest revelation for me last week was that my copyeditor not only understood the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation (of course), she also understood where I had intentionally broken the rules to use punctuation or rythym creatively. She understood my intention.

Then she worked with that intention, with my rules, to make the writing more elegant, so the words didn’t get in the way of the story.

The whole experience was really impressive, and I found myself enormously grateful that such painstaking attention is being lavished on my book.

Once the queries were dealt with and the TS returned to Bloomsbury,  I asked my lovely copyeditor, Sarah-Jane Forder, if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions:

1) I edited The Night Rainbow many times before I submitted it. I would have said I went through it with a fine toothed comb. And yet I had 175 queries in total, which you described as ‘very few’! If we imagine I’m towards one end of the spectrum, what does the other end look like?

It was obvious to me when I first read your TS that I was dealing with a very meticulous author. Yes, there were odd things you’d missed in however many edits but that is always the way. I missed things too, which you picked up: remember? My point about the relatively few number of queries, and the absolute ease of my job, was that they were minor things: the odd bit of punctuation here, a tiny bit of garbled text there. Nothing major whatsoever. Many authors, believe me, have neither your eye nor your ear. When you answered my queries you did so with confidence, saying no when you knew absolutely what you wanted. Which is a wordy way of saying that the other end of the spectrum might have multiple typing errors and inconsistencies as well as careless repetition, holes in the plot and characters whose eyes change from blue to brown according to the weather.

2) Many of your queries represented changes that needed applying several times through the book and after you’d mentioned something once I came across dozens of subsequent errors that I’d made (consistency of spellings etc.) Do authors get ‘better’ at noticing these, the more books they write? So fewer slip through to copyedit stage?
I think, the more they write, authors do become aware of certain tics in their writing: words and phrases they perhaps rely on; that sort of thing. It’s great if an author can get it near on 100 per cent accurate (Anita Brookner, whom I copyedited at Cape, was one), but they are rare.
I have to say that I don’t regard picking up spelling mistakes or typos necessarily as part of writing: you can be dyslexic and still express yourself fluently and vividly and with originality, which is the really important thing. If writers made no errors whatsoever, what about us poor copyeditors? You’d be doing us out of a job!

3) In terms of your process – do you read the book first as a ‘reader’, or immediately with an editor’s eye?

I always do a first read as a reader, or as near as I can get to a reader when I’m working (you’ve sussed that in my leisure time I read in an entirely different way), with an eye out for plot, pacing, characterisation and so on. I will also at that point make a note of any inconsistencies of style (‘girl-nest’!) and make a ‘style chart’ to follow for the edit proper. The edit proper is slower, and usually said out loud in my head. I find it helps to hear the words – you yourself mentioned rhythm and I think that’s really important.

4) How did you become a copyeditor? What do you like about the job?

I fell into copyediting! I graduated in English with a vague idea of going into publishing: no more than that. I was lucky enough to be appointed at Jonathan Cape as an editorial assistant working with Liz Calder, one of the top literary fiction editors at that time. Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, John Fowles, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan: they were all Cape authors. Later, when Liz went to set up Bloomsbury, I followed her. 

I’ll be honest: the job can be extremely tedious (depends what you’re working on!) but it’s always fascinating to work one to one with authors; it can feel like a real privilege, in fact. There’s the satisfaction of making a difference, however small. The devil’s in the detail! Having been freelance now for about 15 years, one of the things I love about my job is being able to work from home, at no one’s beck and call. I like the freedom, I like the quiet! The money sucks: you don’t go into it expecting to become rich. But I specialise in editing literary fiction, and how can you put a price on the pleasure of being paid to read wonderful writing?


Huge thanks to Sarah-Jane for taking the time to answer these questions in her busy schedule. I hope you find them as illuminating as I did.

Next steps for The Night Rainbow? First Pages for proofreading in a few weeks, and the cover! It’s also off for translation. Still a year to go until publication, but we’re well on our way!

24 Responses

  1. MrsT says:

    Great piece, really useful to have such insight from both you and Sarah-Jane. Her comments about not having to be technically perfect to be a good writer are very reassuring. Thank you

    • claire says:

      Thank you! The different skills people are bringing to this novel, above and beyond the work I did myself, is quite astonishing. Changes the way I look at the books I read.

  2. Mike says:

    It’s true that you can stare a mistake in the face for ages and not see it if you’re so close to your text so getting copy edited must be a really helpful experience.

    What I think is most perplexing about the answers your copy editor gave is the number of errors that she found on the opposite end of the scale to yours. When I’ve heard agents and editors speak they always tell writers to only submit manuscripts that are as polished as possible. Perhaps that’s a relative term depending on the individual writer?

    • claire says:

      I completely understand your point. Having reflected on it, I think what is expected of us is to do our best, and not present something sloppy, delivered in a rush.
      I suspect that for debut novelists this is particularly important; when you have a following you can probably pass on a little more ‘work needed’ in the name of meeting a deadline?

  3. Janetyjanet says:

    Hmmmm, career changing information perhaps…!

  4. Stephanie says:

    I found being copy-edited a revelation. I used to think I could spell! And like you, I thought I had submitted a near-perfect manuscript. There’s no doubt that Barbara, my copy-editor, made my book a much, much better one.

  5. Janet O'Kane says:

    Thanks for this – it is so interesting and useful! I’m currently polishing my first novel because I want to get it as good as I possibly can before sending it out. Your and Sarah-Jane’s comments reassure me that I’m right to pay this much attention to my writing but also that I’m not alone in always missing something. Sarah-Jane and other editors don’t have to fear about never having a job!

    • claire says:

      Thank you! Good luck with your novel. My advice from all of this is really, get it so good that you’re proud of it in your heart, and that you know it inside out. You’ll still have plenty of work to do on it afterwards with all the lovely editors. I can’t see us ever doing them out of a job, I think they’re a different breed to us!

  6. Claire, you may never know how many copyeditors you have delighted with this post. This copyeditor thanks you!

  7. carol mcgrath says:

    I want your copy editor. I guess I would have to be taken on by Bloomsbury. Wonderful post. Thank you.

  8. I really appreciate that you’re writing about the process after having a manuscript accepted. It’s such a mystery to those of us who dream of that day! Thank you.

  9. Brian says:

    Really interesting – thanks for posting this. I love when an editor understand why I’m breaking the rules sometimes.

  10. Copyedit insight | Jo Dainton says:

    […] have just came across this fascinating insight into the work of a copy editor. Having just been involved in the […]

  11. It sounds like you were incredibly fortunate in your copy editor. I had one who inserted loads of Bridget Jones type exclamations into my heroine’s speech, altered the names of the French restaurants people were eating at, put in swear words and completely reversed the sense of a couple of passages by cutting out a couple of sentences as ‘unnecessary’. I changed it all back. The others were much better but it doesn’t sound as if they were anything like as helpful and thorough as yours was. Lucky you, it’s so encouraging when people really take trouble.

    • claire says:

      I think I was. When I got the full copyedited manuscript back to double check, a coupe of weeks after we finished the queries, there were only two or three things that I wanted to ‘undo’. Oh and of course I spotted a couple of other things I wanted to change! Time to let go now, it’s gone to be made into bound proofs.

  12. Jane Riddell says:

    This post resonates so much with the stage I’m at with my novel. Though I’m obviously light years behind you in terms of progress. I wish you the best of luck.

  13. […] editor’s line edits, Copyedits and Proofs. And not forgetting the book […]

  14. Bronagh Curran says:

    HI Claire
    Just wondering if you have any advice for a different stage of editing? My agent wants to hire an editor to work on my novel following a series of rejections. Does this mean a complete rework in your opinion? should I be worried that I’ll have to make major changes to plot? thanks

    • claire says:

      It’s very common to have a series of rejections, even when you’re agented. If you’ve had specific feedback from publishers, then an agent may well want you to do some revisions, and some will work with you. I’ve no specific experience of getting in an independent editor to have a look at a novel, but I assume it would be someone to cast a structural eye over it, so they may well suggest plot and character changes. My own agent will sometimes suggest this for novels, but usually before offering representation. Of course it’s your novel, so you can reject changes if you don’t feel comfortable with them. A good editor to follow on twitter is @gillybethstern

  15. Bronagh says:

    great, thanks Claire!

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