Book publishing, as an industry, is not unlike a Jenga tower held together by sheer force of will. If the industry works at all, it's only because many dedicated and diligent people work or little reward like that horse, Boxer, from Animal Farm. (Though it's not all gloom-and-doom; it can certainly have its moments.) Many publishing workers remain invisible to readers and even authors, toiling away on initiatives and tasks unfamiliar to all but those already deeply enmeshed in the publishing world. 'Acknowledgements' is an interview series that aims to change that in some small way.
One part of the publishing process that's often overlooked is that of copy-editing. So, I consider myself very lucky that when I was looking for a copy editor to interview, Stuart mother-f'ing Ross answered the call. Ross is, at this point, an institution in Canada's literary press landscape. If Toronto's literary scene had a Mount Rushmore, his would probably be one of the faces dynamited into the stone. He's written a number of books of poetry (You Exist. Details Follow.), fiction (Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew), essays (Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer), and more. His latest book is a collaboration with 29 other writers, Our Days in Vaudeville. In addition to his own impressive writing, he edits an imprint at Mansfield Press, oversees the Patchy Squirrel Lit-serv of Toronto literary events, and runs a series of Poetry Boot Camps. He's also a very fine freelance copy editor, with a number of clients in the book publishing world. He very kindly answered my questions about time constraints, stetting, and dangling modifiers from his home in Cobourg, Ontario. (He even inserted a pretty sly copy-editing joke in one of his answers for the eagle-eyed among you readers.)
So, what does a copy editor do, exactly?
ROSS: A freelance copy editor works for a variety of clients — in my case, publishers of books, magazines, catalogues, artist's monographs, as well as those who disseminate business materials and advertising, plus individual writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. That's the freelance part. Here's the copy-editing part: the copy editor works on manuscripts to solve issues of spelling, grammar, style, syntax, punctuation, fact, and so forth. The style part is the most fun: helping to make the author's strengths rise to the surface by pruning, smoothing, clarifying, juggling words/sentences/paragraphs, and so on. Also applying a publisher's house style: treatment of serial commas, acronyms, numbers/numerals, preferred spelling (e.g., Canadian Oxford or Merriam-Webster's Collegiate?), and on it goes.
Nothing beats copy-editing old school.
ROSS: I prefer working on paper. I like the look of the editing marks and I like the scratching sound of the pencil. I like flipping through pages more than I like scrolling through screens. But more and more, clients want electronic edits, and I don't want to charge them for transferring the paper edits to the electronic file, so I often work straight on the screen. Never with poetry, though. With poetry, I always work on paper, and then transcribe edits to the electronic file.
Sorry, 'insert hyphen,' but Ross is just not that into you.
ROSS: I really like the mark for paragraph — a sort of backwards 'P' with two vertical strokes. How could you not love something like that? You want to pet it on the head and give it a rawhide chew.
He's got a better client list than Jennifer Love Hewitt.
ROSS: I have copy-edited publications for ECW Press, Mansfield Press, Coach House Books, Doris McCarthy Gallery, Underline Studio, BookThug, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Oakville Galleries, Random House Canada, and more. The exciting thing about being a freelancer is the amazing variety of projects you get to work on. That makes up for some of the drawbacks of being a freelancer. I work on probably about fifteen or twenty books a year. Sometimes more.
He's been copy-editing before there was Spellcheck.
ROSS: I've been doing some freelance copy-editing since my twenties (when I made the bulk of my living in the 1980s at York University's student newspaper as a typesetter thrashing away at an A&M Varityper CompEdit 5900, before the era of desktop publishing), but I became strictly freelance when I left my in-house job at Eye Weekly (where I was production manager, a job that included copy-editing) in 2002. Holy shit. I hadn't realized I've been doing it so long!
Ross cut his teeth on bodice-rippers at Harlequin. (That sounds more erotic than I'd planned.)
ROSS: Harlequin has pretty strict quality standards, so I really learned my chops there. And there's serious conveyor-belt action: those books come through fast and furious. I was a proofreader for a year, and then a copyeditor for two years and a half, and I dealt with 200 books over that period. After I left my in-house work there, I tried to do a bit of freelance proofreading for them, but after a few, I just couldn't face the books anymore. (After Harlequin, and before Eye Weekly, I worked in-house at the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario, writing amendments for driver's licensing manuals, and then at NOW Magazine, as a proofreader.)
Sloppy authors are his favourite.
ROSS: Some prose books are extremely clean and demand only attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and some demand altering every single sentence for the above plus style, repetition, overwriting, factual errors, etc. Same goes for a poetry book. An 88-pager might take six hours or it may take fifteen hours. When it comes to prose, I might be able to get through ten or twelve pages an hour, or I might spend an hour on four or five pages. Some authors are sloppy, and some are meticulous. I'm grateful for the sloppy authors (who may be great writers but not so hot on the details), because they keep me in business.
Copy-editing can also involve a crash-course on the vagaries of state traffic laws.
ROSS: If the client asks me to fact-check, I fact-check. If the client doesn't, I still keep my eyes open for factual errors without spending too much extra time on it. Every name, date, place, and historical (or current) event gets double- and sometimes triple-checked. Of course, one always has to be confident about one's source. Wiki rarely cuts it. In the days before Google, when I worked at Harlequin, I'd often call up the Metro Reference Library and ask them to look up some factoid for me in some obscure book. Or maybe I'd call up directory assistance in Spokane and ask them if it snows there in March, or if you can turn right at a red light in Washington. They loved that — it was a nice break from droning out phone numbers.
How does one deal with a rush copy-editing job?
ROSS: By working ridiculous hours and drinking lots of green tea. The frustrating thing is when clients give you a rush job but take their sweet time in paying.
Copy-editing is just one-third of his living … and one-third of the reason he's up so late at night.
ROSS: I make my living in three main ways: freelance editing, teaching writing and coaching writers, and writing. I deal with whatever has the most imminent deadline. I work late into the night an awful lot. But I enjoy the variety of challenges I take on.
He doesn't mind a little heavy stetting.
ROSS: I don't usually have the opportunity to see what was accepted and what was stetted. [Stetting = copy-editing jargon for when a word or item marked for correction or deletion is retained.] But I almost always get a note of gratitude from the author, so I'm assuming most of what I do is appreciated. Aside from factual errors and grammatical and spelling concerns, I consider all my copy-edits to be suggestions. I'm especially happy when an author sees the problem that I'm pinpointing and comes up with a third and better way to solve it.
What's the worst grammatical mistake?
ROSS: Be it a new author or an old pro, I hate dangling modifiers.
Once you start copy-editing, you see grammatical mistakes and awkwardness everywhere. (Even in these intros ... you'll note the style of these interviews is inconsistent.)
They've bothered me for as long as I can remember. I'm always editing out extraneous thats in my head, smoothing out clunky sentences, correcting typos, and de-dangling modifiers.
Never underestimate the importance of a good copy editor.
ROSS: There are self-publishing authors and cheapskate/sloppy publishers out there who think they can skip the copy-editing stage. I wish they knew that what I do is indispensable. Because details and accuracy matter, and style and consistency and the energy of a sentence. A piece of writing that is sloppy, even occasionally, has a way of losing the confidence and/or interest of a reader; readers may not even know why they are being turned off. A good copy editor helps the writer say it as clearly and effectively as possible, regardless of what the 'it' is.
Stuart Ross is often up to dozens of things at once. If you'd like to find out just what, visit his Bloggamooga blog for information on readings, writing classes, books he's edited, and more.
This has been my final 'Acknowledgements' column. Thanks for reading!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Evan Munday is the author and illustrator of the acclaimed book series for young readers, The Dead Kid Detective Agency. Both The Dead Kid Detective Agencyand its sequel, Dial M for Morna, were nominated for the Silver Birch Fiction Award.
Evan has worked in book marketing and publicity for ten years, eight of which were as publicist at Coach House Books, and he has since worked as a freelance illustrator and ebook designer.