Misery Loves Company: A Copyeditor’s Top 10

I was delighted when I happened upon this article about the ten most common errors this copyeditor (the author uses “a manuscript editor”) encounters—and she works on academic books.

Oh, you mean this isn’t just my little problem? (Cue the hysterical laughter.) Or—put another way—now do you believe me?

It would be good for you to consider this list for a variety of reasons, not least because it will probably make you feel better. (But also, of course, because if you eliminate these errors from your repertoire, you’ll free your copyeditor up to find more important problems without the distractions caused by these. And since you’re paying her by the hour, you’ll get off a little cheaper too.)

You should read the list first—g’wan, I’ll wait—then my comments.

10. Spacing. We have talked and talked about this: do not double space after a period. In fact, don’t ever double space, period. And still I get the indignant Who sez? response. This hurts my feelings, kids. You’re paying me to be right about these things, and yet you don’t believe me? And about those “dozens of hard returns” to get to the next page: stop it. Learn how to insert a page break. These two things alone will make you look more professional when I’m not around to fix it for you.

9. Formats. Leave that for the typesetter. We’re working on the words here.

8. Punctuation at the end of quotations. Down and dirty: commas and periods go inside, colons and semicolons go outside for you Yanks. Brits put ’em all outside.

7. Disagreement with an antecedent. No, they isn’t singular. And that’s just the start of it.

6. Constructions that aren’t parallel. That sentence should read “The investigation could neither account for the missing cupcakes nor the fact that there was a secret door in the back of the manager’s office.” UPDATE: An editor in Maryland e-mailed a correction to this, pointing out that neither should come after account for. Yes: the neither/nor is a correlative, and the placement of neither in this sentence is awkward. I should have corrected that.

5. Capitalization. No, no, we don’t capitalize president. Or heaven. (OK, OK, look: The speaker at the college graduation ceremony was President Kennedy. The speaker at the college graduation ceremony was the president of the United States. See?)

4. Numbers. Be consistent. I’ll take it from there.

3. Danglers and misplaced phrases. Misplaced phrases are fun. I corrected “He looked up from the stiff pillow of his hospital bed through yellowed eyes” to “He looked up through yellowed eyes from the stiff pillow of his hospital bed.” Can you see why? Dangling participles are fun too. “The mother took her son to the intake desk at the emergency room. When checking in, the nurse asked for her insurance card.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written, This reads as if the nurse is checking in, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

2. Compound words/words with prefixes. And what really irks me, dear hearts, is when I fix them, put them on the word list (which I sent to you), and you change them back.

1. Commas. ’Tis true: commas demand a lot of my time. And the author doesn’t mention the serial comma, which needs to be added regularly.

So there you have it: the top ten copyedits to academic books. But what about the books I work on? What costs me the most time? This list could be my list, but I might add this: it takes a lot of time to clean up your manuscript when you’ve added a hard return after each paragraph (business-letter style—or the style of this blog) instead of indenting (manuscript style). Have you ever read a book with a line of space in between each paragraph? No, you have not. So why would you send me a manuscript set up like that? Think about it.

Tweet: You mean this isn’t just my little problem? The 10 most common copyediting errors.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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13 Comments

  1. Ramona says:

    Ah, yes, those clean-up tasks. The first thing I do with every arriving manuscript is take out ALL double spaces, any space around punctuation, and change double dashes to em-dashes. Then I strip out all formatting. I just got new manuscript guidelines from another publisher, and they are quite strict about such things and will bounce your manuscript back and make you do them. BTW, I call wandering bits of punctuation literary rabbit droppings. Annoying trash that has to be repeatedly cleaned up.

    • Jamie says:

      I once got a galley in which no one had stripped out the double spaces after periods, and I couldn’t bear to read it. Ack!

  2. Rachel Britz says:

    I love your blog! For someone like myself, a newbie to the writing a novel world, I appreciate these tidbits. I now realize that I need to ramp up my prayers for my beloved future editor. Cherio!

  3. You rock, Jamie! Judging a contest at the moment and find the manuscripts full of these mistakes, but authors don’t know unless some kind soul informs them. Thank you, kind soul :)

  4. Mari Adkins says:

    Oh my stars and garters – we have the same editing peeves!! <3!

    • Mari Adkins says:

      Also, it drives me straight up a wall when people misplace “only”. It’s easily done – we do it in speech, too.

      I only want to go to Bedfordshire. Is that really the only thing the character wants? Or does the character want only to go to Bedfordshire? Thus, I want only to go to Bedfordhire.

      It’s probably a good thing I never got my teaching certificate. Two kids in my entire career would have loved me. The rest would have lynched me after two days.

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  6. Adam says:

    I had to stop reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell because there was a hard return between each paragraph (and I’m talking in the printed edition). There was so much white space on every page that it depressed me and I stopped reading about 30 pages in.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Oh my! That’s awful! Was it a galley, an advance copy? I would’ve quit reading too.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Golly, I just looked on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, and those hard returns aren’t the only thing I saw wrong with the typesetting/copyediting/proofing. Eeeek.

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