Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor

February 7, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 39 10 min read


I’ve fallen in love with my copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz.  Not only did she find all the mantle/mantel homonym errors in my novel manuscript, she also helped me with my commas and discovered a couple of embarrassing inconsistencies.  (“First she had a briefcase,” one of her notes reads.  “Now it’s a suitcase.”)  She is both respectful of style and sharp as knives about grammar.  Also, she said she’d read a sequel to my book — if not a whole series! — so of course I love her.

I’ve always been curious about a copyeditor’s process and Susan was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine.  Susan has been in the publishing business for, as she puts it, a zillion years.  She’s worked in-house as both a copyeditor and an acquisitions editor, and currently freelances, mostly for Knopf and Soho Press.  She recently started working with Little, Brown again, which was one of her main clients in the 1980s and 1990s.  She lives in Chicago.

The Millions: You have worked in book publishing for years, not only as a copyeditor but as an in-house editor doing acquisitions and all that.  You told me copyediting is your favorite of these jobs. Why? 

Susan Bradanini Betz: When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions.

As a freelance copyeditor, I work for publishers who expect me to do a thorough job. And when I find an error in a novel’s chronology or an incorrect date in a nonfiction book, I feel that is as important to the integrity of the book as when I used to suggest switching chapters around.

TM: What are the copyeditor’s particular pleasures and challenges?

SBB: I love being able to read a manuscript closely, word by word or even, when something is particularly dense, syllable by syllable. (Yes, I have done that.) The main challenge, other than the usual one of balancing deadlines with quality, is making a sustainable living as a freelance copyeditor. With Obamacare, I’ll have health insurance for the first time in quite a while.

TM: Can you describe how you go about copyediting a manuscript?  That is, what’s your reading process like?  How in the hell do you manage to catch the smallest of errors?

SBB: Ideally, I’d have time to read through every manuscript twice: once to mark everything and once just to read and find whatever I missed the first time through. But the schedules don’t allow for that. Plus, I usually end up reading each sentence multiple times anyway.

So, when I get a manuscript, I just start right in on page one. I don’t page through or skim the manuscript first because I want to be aware of the evolution of the story and the order in which information is presented. That way, if some detail important to the reader’s understanding was inadvertently dropped in the author’s revision process, I’m more likely to catch it.

I usually read the first 60 to 100 pages without marking anything but the most cut-and-dried items — serial commas, typos, backward quotation marks, those sorts of things. I start my style sheets right away on page one, keeping track of the author’s existing style for thoughts, words, dialogue, and so on, and noting what seems intentional and what seems unintentional.

Once I’m familiar with the author’s style and voice, which usually happens around page 60, I begin making copyediting changes that I hope are consistent with the author’s intent and the publisher’s expectations. I query a lot rather than changing a lot. When I reach the end of the manuscript, I go back and copyedit those first sixty pages.

Creating style sheets is the secret to catching small errors. I am obsessed with my style sheets. I keep a word list, a character list, a list of places (fictional and real), a chronology, a general style sheet, a list of hyphenated modifiers, and any other list that helps me keep track of everything. I usually fact check as I go, although when I’m pressed for time I make a list of items to look up later, sometimes after I’ve returned the manuscript to the publisher. In those cases, I send a list of corrections that can be added by the production editor to the first pass. (Ha-ha, if someone else wrote this paragraph, I’d query the repeat of “list” — I used it seven times in five sentences.)

Because I read slowly, I also remember odd little details that provide a strong visual image, and so as I read along, if my visual image is jarred by a description, I’ll backtrack to figure out if there’s some inconsistency. I remember more details about characters in novels I’ve copyedited than I remember from my own life.

TM: Can you turn off your copyediting mind when you’re reading for pleasure? 

SBB: No, I can’t turn it off, but believe it or not, that mind-set makes pleasure reading more pleasurable for me. When reading for pleasure I don’t read as slowly as when I copyedit, but I am not a fast reader. Often I will read a sentence more than once, then flip back and forth comparing it with other sentences, just like I do when copyediting. I think I’ve always read like a copyeditor, even way back before I knew what a copyeditor was. One of my favorite authors is Proust, and when I was young I would read some of his sentences over and over trying to make sure I understood how every word related to the other words and just to make sure I understood what he was saying.

TM: So I guess it’s possible to have fun reading while you’re copyediting…

SBB: Yes! I have fun reading nearly all the manuscripts that come to me — maybe all. I think of my job as publishers setting up an amazing reading list for me.

I try not to read ahead of my editing, but sometimes it’s impossible not to because I’m so caught up in the story. Many things can only be noticed when you are reading slowly and reading something for the first time. If I read ahead, I have to go back and reread everything at a copyediting pace. But because I already know what’s going to happen, I might make assumptions that don’t take into account the reader’s limited information at that point in the story

TM: In a conversation between Michael Pietsch and Donna Tartt that ran in Slate, Pietsch quoted from the letter Tartt sent to her copyeditor for The Goldfinch:

I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I’ve intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.

What are your thoughts on Tartt’s argument? (And were you the copyeditor to receive this note?!)

SBB: Yikes — no, fortunately, I wasn’t the copyeditor to receive that note. But often, when an author has that kind of reaction, it’s a result of misunderstanding. Most copyeditors don’t want to alter anything in a manuscript that the author has done on purpose.

The house style is set by the publisher, and copyeditors generally receive a manuscript without any guidelines other than to follow the house style for that publisher. And “house style” doesn’t refer to writing style but to mechanics such as capitalization, hyphenation, spelling (most often the house dictionary is Webster’s 11th), and so on. In addition, copyeditors watch for dangling modifiers, subject-verb and antecedent-pronoun agreement, repeating words, chronology, consistent names and dates, among other things. And they are expected minimally to verify dates, proper nouns (personal names, place-names, streets and highways, institutions, etc.), foreign words, brand names, slogans or advertisements — really, to verify as much as possible within the allotted time. Add to that that freelancers have no benefits and work for an hourly rate, so getting continual work from a publisher is important. What all that means is that the copyeditor is pressed for time and is unlikely to go against house style unless instructed to do so, for fear that the publisher will think she just doesn’t know how to copyedit.

Copyeditors are always guessing at the author’s intentionality, and a copyeditor who assumes everything the author has done is inadvertent does come off as a harsh schoolmarm. For example, in the note the author writes “Twentieth century, American-invented conventions.” A copyeditor would revise that as “twentieth-century, American-invented conventions,” assuming that the cap T in “Twentieth” was a typo, and the inconsistent hyphenation of compound modifiers was an oversight. However, “House Style,” which is not a proper noun, is capped three times in one paragraph. For me, that would be a signal that the author might have a personal cap style that I shouldn’t mess with. So I’d probably query the author about her intentionality regarding caps, calling out the occurrences so she can double-check that everything is as she wants it. If the copyeditor doesn’t at least call out the nonstandard style with a query, someone will do it later — either the production editor or the proofreader or even someone in publicity. And if the issue is raised after typesetting, the publisher is perfectly justified in asking why the copyeditor hadn’t settled that question earlier.

But that said, as an acquisitions editor, I saw copyeditors make all sorts of unjustified changes. And when I was acquiring poetry and fiction, I would sometimes lose it myself when I saw what copyeditors would do. I once had a copyeditor rewrite the last paragraph in a novel, which made the author (and me) go ballistic. The final paragraph! As if the author hadn’t given it considerable thought.

And sometimes a copyeditor is just mismatched to a project. Last year a publisher asked me to do a second copyedit on a memoir that had been thoroughly (way too thoroughly) copyedited already. The first copyeditor had changed so much that the author became paralyzed about a third of the way through his review of her changes. According to what the publisher told me, and from what I could tell from the author’s comments on her comments, he not only felt the copyeditor didn’t understand his work, but he started doubting his own choices. When I looked at the first copyedit, I understood the reasons behind nearly all of her changes, but I also saw that she clearly did not get this author’s humor or his unique voice, which often involved nonstandard syntax. She had done a ton of work recasting passive sentences and paring down “awkward” (and by “awkward” I mean “hilarious”) sentences. And in many places he had agreed to a change that honestly purged all the humor and personality from a passage. So then I would query if it was OK to reinstate his original as it was better than the copyedited version. That was a case of a complete mismatch.

TM: Is there a tension between what you know to be “correct” and the artistic license of the writer?  How do you handle that tension?

SBB: I see my job as a copyeditor less about enforcing rules than about making sure the author is aware of anything in the manuscript that is nonstandard and confirming that any variations from standard grammar and punctuation are intentional. In my queries, I try to get across the idea that just because I’m asking a question doesn’t mean that something needs to be changed. As you know, I often qualify my questions by saying something like “just checking” or “it might be just me” or “not really necessary to change.”  Especially with poetry, I love when an author responds with “yes, that is intentional,” because it means he or she truly thought through the style, so I don’t have to be so OCD about it.

TM: Have you noticed any new style and grammar trends in the last five years? 

coverSBB: New copyediting trends generally pop up after a new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is published, and the 16th edition came out in 2010. New guidelines in CMOS cause publishers to reevaluate their current house style, because they have to decide what changes they will incorporate from the new edition. These are changes like what to do about capping a generic geographic noun when it follows more than one proper noun — so is it “Illinois and Chicago rivers” or “Illinois and Chicago Rivers”? The style has changed back and forth over the last editions of CMOS, but it’s something really only copyeditors get excited about.

For informative and entertaining updates on the state of copyediting, I keep up with Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh’s Twitter feed.

Just anecdotally, in the manuscripts I receive, I’ve noticed a lot of two-word proper nouns closed up (like “SpongeBob”), a result of tech product names, I guess. So when an author creates a fictional product or company now, it’s often one word made up of two.

I’ve noticed, too, that a lot of authors are omitting the word “that” and putting a comma in its place in dialogue or first-person narratives in fiction. I think that’s because many throwaway phrases currently used in conversation omit “that,” and the speaker pauses — for example, “I mean, I had a really good time at the party.” Almost every novel I’ve worked on in the past few years had at least one “I mean, . . .” in dialogue. And in just about every conversation I have in real life someone uses the phrase. But the comma for an omitted “that” happens with other constructions, too, as in “She was so late, she missed the show” rather than “She was so late she missed the show” or “She was so late that she missed the show.”

TM: What are your favorite errors to fix?

SBB: I love to find errors that are important to the accuracy or quality of the manuscript, because then I feel as if my copyediting is contributing something more than tiny details. So, for example, things like a character being described as not having visitation with his kids later taking them somewhere on “his” weekend, or someone beginning a scene sitting on a couch, then rising from a chair, or a character drinking a shot of whiskey but getting a refill on her red wine. Those are errors that usually result from the author’s revisions and multiple drafts, and they can slip past easily. I also like to catch dangling modifiers, because we all miss those, so it means I’m paying attention. I never change any of these, though, without querying, and most often I will just call them out to the author with a query. And, yes, I have had authors who say that dangling modifiers are part of their style and don’t want to change them.

TM: I am proud that you said my manuscript was “clean,” but I was also appalled by my misuse of the comma!  Can you provide three rules for comma use to put in my back pocket for the next book?

SBB: It isn’t so much that commas are misused as that authors often don’t realize their phrasing is effective enough to make the addition of nonstandard commas unnecessary. A comma isn’t always needed to make the reader catch the pause in dialogue or narrative; often the syntax does that just fine, and an unnecessary comma slows the reader down too much.

So, in addition to the serial comma (“I adopted a lab mix, a poodle, and a Lhasa mix”), here are the three commas that I think work best when handled per standard punctuation style:

1. Avoid a comma between elements of a series connected by conjunctions.

I adopted a lab mix and a poodle and a Lhasa mix.

2. Add a comma between independent clauses connected by a conjunction unless each clause is short, especially if the conjunction is “but.”

I used to foster dogs, but I had to stop after I adopted Frank.

3. Avoid using a comma between compound predicates or objects.

I brought Frank home as a foster dog and just couldn’t return him to the shelter.

I’ve had many dogs but never bought a puppy from a pet store.

I feed my dogs kibble and homemade treats.

4. And a bonus tip: Always add a comma after a phrase or clause ending in a preposition to avoid “reading on.”

After I put my coat on, the dogs knew it was time to go out. (Even “After I put on my coat, the dogs knew it was time to go out” reads better with the comma, though there’s no chance of reading on.)

Image Credit: LPW

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Edan,

    Damn, I wish I’d conducted this revelatory interview! Like you, I just got through going over the copy editor’s work on my forthcoming novel, and, like you, I was pleasantly surprised by the editor’s dedication, sharp eye and deft touch. This was after the acquiring editor had done a surgical edit of her own. Everybody says nobody edits books anymore. Don’t believe ’em!

  2. This is a great interview and a valuable list of rules regarding comma usage, Edan and Susan.

    It’s been a few years since the last time I emailed professionally with copyeditors, but I still recall the terrors of that process. I’d double- and triple-check every word, punctuation mark, etc… and still I’d feel like I was displaying my own ignorance. Oh, I don’t miss that at experience at all!

  3. This is a great interview but even more than that it’s great to shine a light on copyeditors, who generally get little credit but who do so much to improve a book, even beyond fixing grammar and spelling and pesky commas. I was in awe of the copyeditor for my novel, who not only suggested fixes for mechanical issues but did fact-checking, pointing out, among other things, that I had my characters going to a particular movie in 1967 when the actual movie hadn’t come out until 1969 (a glitch that came from shifting the chronology in revision) and, even more impressive was the query he made about a passage where I had my character, who was staying in what is an actual hotel, going down the hall to the laundry; the copyeditor, who contacted the hotel, pointed out that the laundry was actually on the ground floor, not the floor where my character was staying.

    All hail the copyeditors!

  4. This is a great interview. Thank you, Susan, for this insight onto (into?) the profession.

    Incidentally, I think The Goldfinch could have been improved by more intervention–particularly its befuddling timeline. Although perhaps the world of the novel was in fact subtly predicated on (by?) the existence of time travel.

  5. I loved this interview. I really love how specific and detail-oriented it all is, and how she operates based on the “rules” but also takes into account the author’s “voice.” That’s a necessary balance that’s probably tough to get just right. I’m so happy for you, Edan, that you have someone like this to work with! What a fascinating read. Thanks, Edan!

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words! I am so happy that Sue (and all great copyeditors!) are getting celebrated today with the help of this Q&A.

    Bill, yes, my editor edited me seriously and wonderfully, too. I feel very grateful…and, boy, did I learn a lot!

  7. What a revealing interview. I have often wondered about some of the inconsistencies I have found in books. I usually chalk them up to rewrites, forgetting earlier references in previous books in a series, or other miscues.
    Didn’t realize there were so many editors involved in publication of a book.
    I read the authors’ credits and they seem to thank ‘editors’ – I guess it is the catchall for acquisition editors, copyeditors, and editor editors. Thank you all..

  8. Oh, the dreaded comma! Thanks for this enlightening post. Really enjoyed it. Now I’m biting my nails until I receive my copy edits on my novel from St. Martin’s Press! Guess that’s why I’m a writer and not a copy editor :)

    Good stuff, Edan and Susan, sharing this around!

  9. In other words, this copy editor turned your original writing style and thought process into her own. She stole the light from the eyes of the words. Writing is like music – it’s better when it’s original, flawed and tinged with human error. Art comes from mistakes. A well-edited book is good for nothing – that is, other than when it’s propping up a table leg.

  10. No, Jymn, that’s not what this Q&A reveals–in these or other words. Also, I’m pretty sure my words don’t have eyes. Maybe yours do, but not mine.

  11. If you cannot see the light in an author’s eyes, you cannot see the content. My god, what you would have done to destroy the previous sentence with your strict interpretation of how writing should work. (“Words don’t have eyes!” – red line slitting through the words.)

  12. Jymn, I am not a copyeditor so I would not be in the position to cross out your words.

    Words-as-eyes doesn’t work for me as a metaphor, perhaps because it reminds me too much of the phrase “eyes are the window to the soul,” which is so overused that it means nothing to me. If I were to give prose a human body part, I’d give it a voice (a diaphragm?)

    I think (hope) that my Q&A shows that Susan is not out to destroy a writer’s book with her copyedits. She respects voice and style, while also pointing out basic errors. One may ignore her suggestions. In my work with her, I saw how much she wanted to understand my voice and my choices. But I do make mistakes and I was relieved to have her find them.

  13. See, you are reading into what I wrote without a clue as to what I was referring. I’m talking the inspiration that drives an artist. Every revolutionary artist, musician, writer comes across much of their best work by accident. A slip of the brush by Van Gogh, Picasso or Pollack sent art into a whole new trajectory. Did they have editors to correct the slips and make them proper? Fuck no. They just did it. How would we ever progress? According to Susan, we’re stuck on Proust! You do a disservice to your readers and yourself, by allowing another person to manipulate your art.

  14. Well put, Jymn. “Art comes from mistakes.” Although it is interesting to read about the process of a copy editor, what idiosyncratic writer worth her salt would welcome her work modified or outright homogenized? But that’s contemporary lit, more concerned about following the rules than establishing a unique voice.

  15. There are still copy editors?
    I’m not seeing any evidence of that in book publishing and major newspapers.

  16. To each his or her own, I suppose. When I write I’m paying far too much attention to narrative flow, the characters’ voices, and my efforts to create humor to catch every error of grammar, syntax, or continuity, even in rewrites. Some may think that “art comes from mistakes,” I suppose, but in my view art is at least somewhat related to craft. I find nothing artistic in my own boneheaded mistakes.

  17. See? I didn’t even notice that I repeated “I suppose” twice in my last comment! Where is a good copy editor when I need one?

  18. Editing huh? Susan’s response to the third question is missing a word. The second paragraph, second sentence is missing a “to.” There should be a “to” after “want” and before “be.”

  19. It is unclear to me to which copy-editor Jynn is actually referring to — Susan, or the un-named editor whose decisions that Susan reversed to give the author back his humor and voice. Perhaps it is both — as a reader, I’m left guessing at her actual intent, which is a failure on her part, not mine.

    However, the general thesis — that art comes from mistakes — is complete, albeit widespread, nonsense. Art succeeds *despite* the flaws, not *because* of them. Writing is like music, true, but because it takes many hours of practice to master the craft before one’s intent can be made clear, and not overwhelmed by the natural incompetence of the unpracticed.

    Listening to a child practice their scales, badly, is not art. It does not approach art. There is no art about it at all.

    When it comes to writing, a copy-editor is a very efficient way to take good authors and make them better. The author *could* do the same work, but it would take hours away from their writing something else. I’m sure that there are some authors who do not need copy-editors, but the rest do.

    To subject the reader to the mistakes described by Susan is a crime. Books are paid for, and part of that transaction is the assurance that what has been paid for with worth what was paid. A work chock-full of stupid mistakes, left alone, because, y’know, ART, is a betrayal of the reader — and of the very concept of Art. A betrayal based in arrogance and laziness (unless the book was given away for free, and no compensation in coin or reputation was given to the author or publisher).

    And so far as Woodcutter’s concern with a unique voice — well, a “voice” shouldn’t come from how the rules of communication are broken, but in how words are arranged. If the rules are to be broken, let them be broken deliberately, to a purpose, and not because the author in question just isn’t very good at writing.

  20. Jymn:

    “See, you are reading into what I wrote without a clue as to what I was referring.”

    You mean you wrote without a clue?
    A clue as to what you were referring TO.

  21. Jymn, you take an position I’ve never encountered before. The visual arts and the written word are different types of creativity. In the books I copyedit, the authors are exceedingly grateful if, say, I catch a real name that they meant to keep anonymous in a memoir. Or if I notice that “whose” should be “who’s.”

    If I’m creating and then singing a song in the shower, I don’t want anybody correcting my pitch or choice of words. But if I were going to sing on stage, I’d sure as heck want someone to help me hone my performance before I went public.

    Taking your argument to the extreme, perhaps we shouldn’t typeset an author’s words but should reproduce them as they were handwritten—errors and all—on a yellow legal pad. This way, the author’s full intent and personality would shine forth, with no outside intervention.

  22. It may be extreme to you, but I think you have hit on a great idea, like a handwritten book. Many self-pubs have this feature and the originality of design and writing is outstanding. I myself self pubbed in the 70’s on a rock amateur mag that will be issued as a compilation book this year. As you can see, I’m not a natural writer – I just liked designing the things. My words are mixed up, mixed with rock vernacular, cuss words and my attempts to write legibly. It’s as close to handwriting as you can get (one was mimeo) with no editing.

    Honing a performance robs it of its emotion, rawness and honesty. That’s why our entertainment industry sucks. It’s all faked-tuned and coached. The Beatles and Stones just did it, most times over the requests of the producer (‘copy editor’).

    Yes, music and writing are altogether different animals. But both rely on that invisible thread that connects the creator with the creation. Interrupting that thread to fit the rules we learned on school is a shame and a hindrance to the individual syle of the writer.

  23. Jymm,
    Hard to resist answering you! I agree that auto-tuning and overproducing today’s pop music makes it dull. But what think you of master artists who learn the very fundamentals of, say, architecture to create the Notre Dame or the Guggenheim or Fallingwater or even an exquisite Arts & Crafts home? Or Michaelangelo or Da Vinci, who spent years learning the rules of perspective and proportions to create “David” or “Mona Lisa” and other mind-bending paintings and sculptures? Yo Yo Ma spent years on the basics to make his cello sing with the likes of classical orchestras and hip-hop artists. True, there is some wonderful stream-of-consciousness writing, improvisational jazz, hip-hop and rap, improv theater, and primitive art. But I still think there is much to be gained from honing one’s craft or art.

  24. I very much enjoyed this piece. I’ve found copy editors to be absolutely invaluable. I understand on principle why some writers are wary of them, but what gets lost in the conversation sometimes is the fact that copy editors don’t have the final word. When my copy-edited manuscripts are returned to me, there are always instances where the copy editor has changed the punctuation in a way that, to my eye anyway, compromises the rhythm of the sentence, but on the other hand I’m always very grateful to have errors pointed out to me, and there’s no doubt in my mind that their work improves the overall quality of the book. I usually accept about 60% of the copy editor’s suggestions and STET everything else.

  25. Great discussion, but surely the final example on comma usage should instead rearrange the sentence thus: “After I put on my coat…”.

  26. That last example is a complex sentence (in this case a dependent clause hitched to the front of an independent clause), and the comma is required there, at the end of the dependent clause, to link them up.

    Reverse the order of the clauses and the comma goes away.

  27. Can someone send me a list of copyeditors – perhaps in my area – that are available to work with a writer (St. Louis, but not solely)? Is Jymn available?

  28. I love this. Ms. Betz really knows what she’s talking about here.
    I both write and edit (future copyeditor here!) and I totally understand some of the comments expressing feelings against copyediting. I have an unconventional style of writing, but I also know the importance of proper writing technique.
    For example, a writer may use a homophone–and the sentence can take on an unintended meaning! This could be disastrous for a writer, because oftentimes writers do not catch such mistakes and then their intentions are sullied by a mistake that they may not have been aware of. Copyeditors are able to catch these mistakes so that the author’s voice can clearly be heard–one of the many things I love about it.

  29. Edan is it copy editor, two words? or one word COPYEDITOR? or copy-editor with hyphen? which is it?

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