From time to time when I mention that I’m copyediting or proofreading a particular book, people ask me what the difference is. So I’m finally going to explain how it all works, at least in my experience. (This post started off at 2000 words, so I went back and deleted a lot of information about book publishing in general—including development editors, book designers, indexers, and so on. Maybe another day….)
When a publisher has a manuscript ready to go into production, the in-house production editor sends it first to a copyeditor. They'll usually give me some guidelines about what they want. Obviously they want me to fix any typos or grammatical errors or sentences that just don't sound right. But they might also say something specific, like, "This author tends to write in short, choppy sentences, so we'd like you to make the prose flow a little better."
So, really, my job is to correct anything that is flat-out wrong, but also to improve the text as best I can without altering the author's voice. I am not supposed to be rewriting the book (although occasionally my editing is so heavy that it nearly constitutes rewriting). It’s also not my job to verify that everything is factually correct. It’s very nice if I happen to catch a factual error, but I’m not expected to do that. Cookbooks are a little different, though, because I’m likely to notice if something sounds wrong. If I’m editing a cookie recipe and it says to add 1 cup of salt, I’m going to ask the author if she perhaps meant 1 teaspoon instead. More often, something is just plain missing: What temperature should the oven be set at? Is that dried oregano or fresh? When does the lime juice get added?
Once I’m done, the author gets a chance to respond to my questions, make changes, or veto any of my edits. Then I clean up the manuscript, accepting or rejecting the edits based on what the author wants, and finally I go through the whole thing one last time to make sure it’s “perfect.” (Ha!)
In the old days, when I used to work in-house, authors typed their manuscripts out on a typewriter and shipped it by mail. Editing was done in colored pencil right on the hard copy. Queries for the author were left on “flags,” which were little slips of colored paper that had a gummed edge you’d stick to the back of the page in question, then fold the slip of paper over the page. As each question was answered, you’d tear off the slip and leave the gummed part stuck to the back.
Then Post-It notes were invented! Greatest. Day. Ever.
Nowadays, of course, manuscripts are typed in Word and emailed all around in the world in seconds. All editing is done via Track Changes. I miss the old days, but I love-love-love the ease and precision of doing a search-and-replace or checking a spelling.
From there the final edited manuscript goes to the compositor. Back to the old days again, this used to mean that someone would take this big stack of manuscript pages and retype the whole thing, incorporating all the handwritten deletions and insertions and changes. Now the compositor just has to “pour” the digital file into a design template, then make the necessary tweaks to make it look good (for instance, adjust the space so the last item in the ingredients list isn’t all alone at the top of the next page or so the photo that goes with this recipe appears on the facing page).
The next stage is page proofs, which are printouts of what the book will actually look like. The author gets one set to check, and the master set goes to a proofreader. The person who copyedited a manuscript is never the same person who does the proofreading, because you need to have a pair of “fresh eyes” look at it. For instance, if I thought that a particular word was spelled right the first time around, I’ll still think that the next time, whereas someone else might notice that I’d made a mistake.
The publishers I work with still have me proofread on hard copy, which I like (I get to use my beloved colored pencils!). So, for instance, right now my dining room table has two big stacks of paper on it for the autobiography of Carlos Santana (!) that I’m proofing. The stack on the left is a printout of the final manuscript that went to the compositor, and on the right is a stack of page proofs. With my two index fingers following along, I’m reading the page proofs against the original manuscript to make sure they match, character for character. At this stage I am not supposed to mark anything to be changed unless it's really wrong.
As you can imagine, proofreading was a much bigger headache in the old days, when manuscripts were retyped by the compositor. Even the best compositors would introduce errors—from simple typos to entire paragraphs (or even pages!) left out or duplicated. Every single character had been retyped and could be wrong. Nowadays the only actual errors that are likely to be introduced are weird glitches—like a foreign-language character showing up in place of a fraction, or a mysterious spacing issue. However, this is yet another chance to catch errors that the copyeditor and author missed along the way, like a repeated word or a misspelling—and I’m here to tell you that they do still show up. I also have to check all the page numbers and, now that there are page numbers, I have to fill in the table of contents and any cross-references. For instance, the manuscript might say, “This salad tastes great with the Balsamic Vinaigrette on page 000,” so I have to go find the vinaigrette recipe and fill in the proper page number. This is also the time to check that all of the text elements were set properly per the design and that the photos and captions were inserted in the right spots.
Then the marked-up master set of page proofs goes back to the publisher. The author will have sent back her set, too, although authors are strongly encouraged not to make any changes that aren’t crucial, because it’s expensive and time-consuming, and also because it can throw off all the pagination if, say, a whole paragraph is deleted or inserted. The production editor answers any last questions that have come up from either the proofreader or the author and sends the master proofs back to the comp, who inputs the changes. The revised proofs go back to the production editor, who checks that all of the changes were made properly and that no new errors were introduced in the process. If there are any problems, the proofs go back to the comp to be revised again, and a new set of proofs are supplied.
Finally, everyone is satisfied (read: there’s no time left in the schedule or money in the budget…) and off it goes to the printer. A few months later, a book appears in my mailbox!