The difference between publishing a book and publishing a book professionally is similar to the difference between making a film with your cell phone and making a film with a crew, director, good lighting, and high-quality film. I had the fortune of being published by 47North, a company that takes professionalism very seriously. The Scourge was a team effort, with three sets of editors looking it over, an experienced artist designing the cover and a team of marketing specialists helping to put the book in front of as many eyes as possible. If you are self-publishing, you may not have the option to enlist such a crew, but you really, really, really should invest in a copy editor. It can make your book stand out in a sea of sub-standard work. My copy editor, Marcus Trower was a godsend. He applied a coat of consistency to my work, and spotted scores of problems that I and all of my beta readers had missed. I spoke with Marcus recently about copy editing recently and he provided some gems. If you are a writer, or have any interest in the writing process, you should read what he had to say.
Hi Marcus. Thanks very much for agreeing to talk to me about editing. I know the typical way to start an interview is to ask about your background, but I’d like to start by asking you about what you do. With the self-publishing craze going full steam, there are a lot of writers asking if they need a copy editor. What are your thoughts on that question?
Thanks for asking me over to your blog, Roberto. I’m going to answer your question in a roundabout way, so bear with me. Twenty years ago I worked as a film journalist for Empire magazine in London—as you know, I’m British. Anyway, we reviewed films and interviewed film makers, as you would expect. Now, whenever we wrote about movies, we gave the directors of those films all the limelight. Most of the time we neglected to talk about all the other people involved in making the films—be they scriptwriters, set designers, grips, best boys, stunt men and women, or whatever. What we were pushing was the auteur theory of film making—the idea that a film represents the pure vision of one person, namely the director. The first time I visited a film set, I was amazed by how many people were involved in the production. I realized I’d swallowed the auteur theory whole, and seeing the reality of film making firsthand really opened my eyes to the collaborative nature of making movies.
What I’m coming round to saying is getting a book published, as distinct from writing a book, is also a collaborative process, and I think some writers who self-publish don’t really understand that fully, because they’ve never seen behind the scenes at a publishing house. As an author, your name may be the one on the book cover, but a lot of people are—or, at least, should be—involved in getting your book into print in the best possible shape. Editors are there to get the best out of you and your writing. Copy editors are part of a team of editors you need to have around you. We’re there to make sure your readers aren’t distracted, or worse, by poor spelling, typos, faulty grammar, bad stylistic choices, poor formatting, inconsistencies, and so on. Some copy editors—and I’m one of them—will also give feedback on storytelling elements, such as POV, characterization, and scene setting, if there are any issues to do with those.
I understand why some self-publishing authors say, “But I can’t afford to hire a team of editors.” I get that—I’m an author too, so I can see this picture from the writer’s perspective—but if you don’t at least employ a copy editor, you really are in serious danger of putting out a piece of substandard work.
If you publish work with a lot of mistakes and distractions in it, you lose your readers’ interest in your work and their faith in you—and you will lose readers, period, or perhaps not get them in the first place, since these days the Look Inside! feature on Amazon allows readers to try before they buy.
And what are the risks of putting out substandard work?
People will point at you and laugh when you walk down the street. No, I’m only joking, though if you put out work that isn’t properly edited, it may actually feel like something like that is happening to you. A lot of the time, a copy editor deals with things that distract readers and undermine an author’s credibility—misspellings, bad grammar, incorrect formatting, overuse of italics, etc., etc. Copy editors want to facilitate the smooth, distraction-free delivery of an author’s story to his or her readers. If you publish work with a lot of mistakes and distractions in it, you lose your readers’ interest in your work and their faith in you—and you will lose readers, period, or perhaps not get them in the first place, since these days the Look Inside! feature on Amazon allows readers to try before they buy.
Okay, now let’s talk about your background. As you just said, you’re an ex-journalist, like me. Can you tell us about your past and about how you became a copy editor?
I started out as a journalist in 1990, and I worked on music magazines, film titles, and men’s magazines all through the early 1990s. Later, I went on to work for some of the UK’s national newspapers, such as the Times. During my years as a journalist, I was always both a writer and a copy editor—actually, subeditor is the label we use in the UK within journalism. I switched to copy-editing books relatively recently. As I said, I’m also an author. I had a nonfiction book, The Last Wrestlers: A Far-Flung Journey in Search of a Manly Art, published in 2007 by Ebury Press (Random House). I’m currently writing a crime novel set in Rio, where I used to live. The fact I’m an author helps a lot when I copy-edit. I’ve grappled with the craft, storytelling and style issues that I see other authors grappling with on the page.
What type of manuscripts do you normally edit? Where do you get the brunt of your work from?
I specialize in editing genre fiction. I edit fantasy, sci-fi, romance, crime fiction, thrillers, and the odd work of literary fiction. My specialisms are crime fiction and thrillers. I work for four CreateSpace imprints—Thomas & Mercer, Montlake Romance, AmazonCrossing, and 47North—as well as with independent authors who either find me through my website and blog or through the Editorial Freelancers Association, of which I’m a member.
Can you talk about the differences between editing a UK book and US book? Are there particular challenges to switching from one to the other?
There are significant differences between British and American style, punctuation and usage. At this point, I find it fairly easy to switch from one language environment to the other. I actually edit more books written by American authors than I do books written by Brits, and I’ve grown to really love American English style and punctuation.
I know from seeing your editing style in action that you do quite a bit. On my manuscript, you helped fact-check, you checked spelling and grammar, you asked thoughtful questions about style, you pointed out inconsistencies, and you commented when something just didn’t seem to work. Are there other things you look for in a manuscript? What do you think are the most important facets of your job when you review a story?
Right. My attitude is that absolutely everything is important, and there is nothing I will not poke at with a stick. Of course, like any good copy editor, I want to straighten out an author’s grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and make sure style guidelines are being followed, but I personally think it wouldn’t make sense to do those things and then ignore instances where, to give a couple of examples, the writer unwittingly slips from third-person POV to omniscient mode, or dialogue floats, because there are no dialogue beats and speaker tags. A lot of passages that contain issues which need to be addressed are written in perfect English, but those issues are still issues.
If you could grab the entire, collective body of writers by the shoulders, shake them and tell them one thing that really irritates you about our manuscripts, what would it be? What are some of the most common errors you see in manuscripts? What are some of the most subtle ones?
I do sort of do that, though not quite so aggressively. When I work with an author independently, I write him or her a manuscript report that talks in detail about any recurring issues that came up in the work. Basically, every writer has his or her blind spots. When editing a manuscript, I quickly get a handle on what those issues are. Which brings us to another good reason for authors to use editors. An editor should gently bring your attention to your foibles, and you can then work that feedback back into your writing and avoid making the same mistakes or bad choices in future. Common errors? There are lots of them. Here are a few random ones: tense shifting; using “it” without an antecedent; dangling participles; comma splices; using ellipses instead of em dashes to show interruptions in dialogue; POV shifting; confusing restrictive clauses with nonrestrictive clauses and mispunctuating them accordingly; and continuity errors.
I really don’t get irritated by errors, though. Actually, what I love about copy editing is having to think about so many different things at the same time. If manuscripts came to me without certain types of errors in them, I’d probably miss them.
My attitude is that absolutely everything is important, and there is nothing I will not poke at with a stick.
Can you give us an example of using “it” without an antecedent (I could probably pull out at least a dozen that you pointed out to me in The Scourge)?
Sure. This is a common issue. There are, in fact, a few grammatically correct ways in which “it” can be used without an antecedent. For instance, when we talk about the weather, we can write “It was raining.” Though that “it” doesn’t actually stand in for anything—in other words, it doesn’t have an antecedent—it’s being used correctly, and it’s classed as a dummy pronoun. The mistake writers sometimes make is they use “it” as a referential pronoun—i.e., one that has to be standing in for something—for something it either can’t do that for, or that isn’t actually there. For example, an author might write this:
Jake laughed. It was something he liked to do.
That line sort of reads okay, but since “it” is a pronoun, it usually has to stand in for a noun (it can also stand in for a phrase). In this case, “it” doesn’t have an antecedent. It can’t stand in for “laughed,” since that’s a verb form. The example I’ve given here is quite a mild case of the problem, and some people might find these two lines acceptable. I regularly see far worse cases than this one, though, and even in an instance like this, the writing loses cohesion.
The publishing landscape has changed quite a bit in the last few years. How has that affected you and copy editing as a whole?
The self-publishing boom is bringing copy editors into direct contact with authors much more. I really like the direct contact, and I’m used to it, since that’s the way things operate within journalism. On magazines and newspapers, editors sit across the desk from writers. I think that’s healthy.
You have a unique lifestyle. You’ve mentioned throwing buckets of water on dogs at the crack of dawn and hens walking into your home. Can you tell us a little about where you have lived and how you got to where you are now?
Right. I’ve lived abroad quite a lot—in Sydney, Rio De Janeiro, Barcelona, and Granada. Currently, I live on a windswept and ruggedly beautiful island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. It’s called Gozo, and strictly speaking it’s part of Malta, though Gozitans treat the Maltese like foreigners. It’s a small island with a small population, and the people here are incredibly friendly. For instance, my neighbor is always coming round to give us lemons, oranges, pomegranates, cauliflowers, and beans—whatever fruit and veg she’s harvested from her land, basically—or to give us a pot with dinner in it.
I better explain my dog-drenching activities. We look after some feral cats, and they’ve become part of our family. There’s this nice guy living nearby who has rescued a lot of abandoned dogs. Unfortunately, he doesn’t train them or keep them on leashes. We know the dogs have killed at least one cat. He takes the dogs out every morning at five thirty, and they used to come marauding down our alley, looking for our cats. So, to protect our cats, I got up every morning at five fifteen, went to the roof and dropped a bucket of water on the leaders of the pack as they ran down the alley. Actually, most of the time the water fell in front of them, and they then spun on their heels and ran away. The tactic has worked, because the dogs don’t come down our alley anymore—and I can sleep in.
It’s a very rustic island, and there’s a small farm on the corner of our alley. Every now and then a hen escapes and seeks asylum in our house—we leave the front door open most of the time. I’m afraid we don’t grant them asylum, though. We would miss the hens’ eggs. The hens scare the cats, too.
What advice would you give to aspiring editors out there? How can someone become an editor?
Obviously you need to study the art of copy editing, and you need to develop a great understanding of grammar, punctuation, and style. Beyond those things, if you want to copy-edit fiction, I suggest you take classes in writing fiction, too. The knowledge you develop will help you no end and should set you apart from copy editors who haven’t studied fiction writing. The more you understand the craft of fiction, the more sophisticated your edits and comments on manuscripts will be, and the more you’ll be able to establish a good rapport with fiction writers.
If an author wanted to contact you or find out about your rates and services, what is the best way to do that?
My website, which is at marcustrowereditor.com, has all that information. If a writer is serious about hiring a copy editor, I’m also happy to give a free demo by working on a few pages of their novel, without any obligation. Writers should shop around for an editor. It’s important to find someone you have real rapport with. You can only discover whether a particular copy editor is right for you by seeing his or her work in action, which is one reason that I, like many copy editors, offer a free demo. A lot of first-time authors don’t really know what working with a copy editor entails, so having a few pages copy-edited is also a good way for them to get an introduction to how the process works.
Even if authors aren’t looking for a copy editor, by the way, they may want to drop by my website to read my blog, Be Your Own Copy Editor, in which I give self-editing advice tackling issues I frequently see in manuscripts. I talk exclusively about topics that relate specifically to genre fiction, and I like to zero in on subjects that don’t get much—if any—attention elsewhere.
About Marcus, in his own words:
I’m a copy editor, author and ex-journalist. I specialize in editing genre fiction, particularly crime fiction and thrillers, for both UK and US publishers and authors. I live on Gozo, a rugged island in the Med near Sicily. My village is the kind of place where old geezers get around on lawnmowers, and every now and then a hen walks through the front door.
Please have a look at Marcus’s blog. It is not only interesting, but a must read for all writers and editors.