Rediscovering the Lost Art of Copyediting

by Emerging Civil War Correspondent Amelia Kibbe

For Chris Mackowski, Ph.D., editor of the Emerging Civil War book series, everything comes back to credibility. After all, he said, if someone can’t get the little things correct, how can he or she be trusted with bigger things?

So, of course, he struggled not to be annoyed when reviewers of the 23-book series kept pointing out that, although the content of the stories held strong, the books contained a few too many typos and copyediting errors.

Mackowski found these comments irritating—troubling even. Multiple sets of eyes looked at the text. And one day, as he read reviews of the series on Amazon, he saw one that was too hard to ignore.

“I found it somewhat irritating that Chris is a journalism professor, yet there are more than a few errors in grammar or dates incorrect that an editor should have corrected. Probably not Chris’s fault,” it read.

That one stung.

“I was never trained as a copyeditor and have readily admitted that’s not my area of expertise,” lamented Mackowski, a professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University—a small Franciscan university in southwestern New York.

He knew he needed to implement some changes into his editing protocol.

The books, written by various authors and published by Savas Beatie LLC, serve as intro-level, reader-friendly stories about the American Civil War, said Mackowski, also an author of many of the books.

Generally, he explained, after an author drafted and proofread the text, he or she sent it to Kristopher D. White, who serves as the chief historian for the series. White read the text, focusing on the factual accuracy of the historical information, before passing the manuscript on to Mackowski, who checked for narrative flow of the story.

When satisfied with the content, Mackowski sent the work to Savas Beatie, based in El Dorado Hills, California, where an initial copyediting of the text took place. Then, unlike many other book series, the publisher returned the manuscript to Mackowski and his team, who designed the book layout instead of the publisher.

“[Designing the books gives] us lots of creative control on our end, so the final product is very much a reflection of our vision,” Mackowski said.

Back across the county the now-designed book went again, where the publishing house did a macro check—reading photo captions, checking page numbers, and other important details—before sending the book to a printer in Michigan.

As Mackowski explained, that meant five editors looked at the content in one form or another— the author, White, Mackowski, a copyeditor, and a macro-check at the publishers. That doesn’t take into consideration any readers an author might have shown the manuscript to before even submitting it.

But mistakes often appear in between different stages of book development, said Sarah Keeney, an editorial consultant for the Emerging Civil War series as well as a marketing director for Savas Beatie.

“[Things can be] added to make formatting work better,” said Keeney, who performs the final macro-check on each of the books. “And little mistakes can find their way into the piece.”

Keeney added that, especially with non-fiction pieces, editors must check for a wide variety of possible errors, such as factual and grammatical ones.

“The other editors are coming at it from a different perspective,” she said. “They can catch different things that I can’t.”

Mackowski agreed.

“Copyediting is its own thing,” he said, adding that while he teaches journalism, he tends to specialize more in content and narrative flow. “I’m also an occasional author in the series. That poses some interesting challenges when it comes to proofing because . . . it’s wicked hard to spot proofing errors in your own material.”

So, early in 2016, Mackowski reached out to the publisher, explaining he felt the series deserved a better copyediting process.

Luckily for him, Savas Beatie already had just the set of eyes Emerging Civil War needed.

Enter Donna Endacott, an account manager for Savas Beatie.

Although perhaps disguised by the sales-like responsibilites of her position, Endacott had the perfect background for copyediting. A love for words at a young age led her to becoming the editor of her high school newspaper and studying journalism in college. After working for a local newspaper for a while, she took a job where she mainly edited and proofread high school English papers before heading to her current position at Savas Beatie.

While she said she enjoys her account management job, she soon began to miss editing and reached out to her superiors, telling them she would be happy to add some freelance editing to her workload.

Now, as part of the Emerging Civil War team, Endacott said she uses the same editing skills—like style and structure— she learned while working with high schoolers. However, she added, she’s now working with accomplished professionals; additionally, she had to gain some familiarity with the subject matter. Thankfully, she said, Mackowski and Keeney quickly filled her in.

“These people know how to write,” she said. “So now what I do is more of a polish than fix major problems.”

Endacott said she first looks at the content upon its initial arrival to the publisher—when it’s still in manuscript form. Every copyeditor has his or her own tricks, she explained, and she begins by increasing the font size of the text before reading it from the beginning to end and then retracing her steps to edit and check the accuracy of the footnotes.

“An important aspect of being a copyeditor is knowing the intended audience,” she said. “Because (as account manager) I also help promote the series, I know about the book and where it’s going.”

After the book has been designed and the pictures added, Endacott said she again receives book, and, now that it is in a different context, she looks at it from a new perspective, and even more errors disappear from the text.

“You see things in layout that you don’t see in manuscript form,” Mackowski explained. “You see the book differently.”

Endacott has edited the five most recent books in the series.

“Adding [Endacott] has worked out great,” Mackowski said, explaining having an editor at both ends of production has drastically lowered the number of typos and errors. “She has made a world of difference.”

But, as Endacott said, a good copyeditor is a humble one.

“[Copyeditors must] always remember it’s not our job to steal the authors’ voices,” she said. “That’s a challenge of every good editor. We’re here to make them shine.”

8 Responses to Rediscovering the Lost Art of Copyediting

  1. I applaud your recognition of the value of copyediting and wish publishers, many of whom now are more concerned with the extra cost than the value of accuracy, could be as perspicacious. As a publisher (and long-time professional copy editor), I’ve watched sadly as appreciation for this craft has waned over the past 20 years or so. With the advent of the Internet’s free-for-all attitude — anyone can write! anyone can publish! correct spelling not necessary! — the situation has gotten worse. But for anyone truly concerned with the accuracy and readability of their material, help is easily available. There are a number of organizations (such as the Editorial Freelancers Association) that can connect you with an experienced professional copy editor who is familiar with your subject and with a variety of style manuals (the Chicago Manual of Style being among the most often used for academic work). You can enlist the copy editor to do something as simple as just catching typos and grammatical errors or have him or her do substantive editing, which includes such things as offering suggestions for reorganization of text and rewriting sections for better flow. A copy editor isn’t just another set of eyes on the manuscript; it is a set of eyes trained to see the errors, inconsistencies, and important nuances of your text. And most copy editors price their work very reasonably, especially when what you are buying is peace of mind.

  2. I’m an editor for a mathematics publication, and for several years I have noted the decline in editorial quality in a lot of what I read—math as well as history. I blame cost-cutting as well as an over-reliance on digital tools which cannot replace the Mark I human eyeball plus brain. The copy-editor has to have enough knowledge of the subject to catch silly errors beyond grammar and spelling. There needs to be a pre-publication reader who is expected to look for silly grammar errors as well as errors of fact. I have seen dates wrong and compass directions wrong in recent books written by outstanding scholars.

  3. Ditto to Elizabeth and James.

    Now retired, I was a newspaper reporter and infrequent weekend editor for 42 years. Like Elizabeth and James, it pains me to see the increasing number of grammatical and syntax errors that crop up in all sorts of publications, from blogs to books.

  4. Years of reading 5th grade & middle school writing has made me believe there is an apostrophe before every final “s” and that spelling is a matter of personal choice.Apparently it doesn’t get any better the further up one goes on the ol’ educational ladder. Alas.

  5. I echo what everyone has said here. For some reason, it’s most aggravating in books turned out by the academic presses. Finding blatant typos, grammatical errors, and factual mistakes in a book priced so that only institutions can afford it is, to put it mildly, annoying.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!