Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 20

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, I recently had to deal with what I called, unapologetically, the “copyedit from hell.”  There was a lot of muttering, and occasional ranting, as I tried to fix what the CE had broken in his/her desire to change my words into his/her words.

And every now and again, as people commiserated and shuddered and swore they’d never let THAT happen to their manuscript, I felt the need to say “guys, this isn’t the norm.  I am more apt to praise copyeditors than to bury them.”

I’m not sure people were listening.

Let me tell you the terrible truth about copyedits.

We – writers – curse a lot during the production of our books, and most of all when confronted with a copyedited manuscript.  There it is, all your weaknesses and plot-missteps laid bare and marked up by someone more detail-oriented (and impartial) than you.  In red pencil, yet.*

Unlike your editor, you probably won’t know your CE.  You don’t get to choose them – and neither does your editor; there’s a managing editor whose job it is to deal with production matters.  A copyeditor is a trained freelancer, assigned – ideally –  because of their knowledge base and familiarity with the genre as well as their availability.  So you hope and you pray and you sacrifice chicken (wings) that you’ll get a good one.

And sometimes, the Publishing Gods snicker.

Best-case scenario, the inevitable cursing is tempered by occasional embarrassment (“how’d I miss that?”) and a quiet but very real gratitude.  Your CE, like your editor, is your ally.  Their job is to keep you from looking like an idiot.  Because you will.  No matter how carefully you do your research, or how well you know your gerunds and verbiage, there will be something – probably many somethings – that slip by.  A good copyeditor will sift through the manuscript, letting your voice and style slide through, and catch all the somethings, querying the ones that are story-related and correcting the ones that are easily correctable.**

This is all part of the process.  We may not like someone else’s fingers in our work, but we say thank you – and mean it.

But sometimes… yeah, sometimes it goes wrong.  Sometimes you get a CE who doesn’t understand the genre, or doesn’t agree with your style-choices, or sometimes just doesn’t like your work.  And sometimes, God help us, we get a CE who wanted to write their own book, but will settle for rewriting yours.

You have two choices, then: send the CEM (copy-edited manuscript) back and demand a re-do (unless you’re a Big Name Author, I do not recommend this, as they may simply send the CEM to production, citing no budget/no time to redo it) or you grit your teeth and you go through with a fine tooth comb and a STET stamp dripping in red ink, a stiff drink and plenty of chocolate to-hand.  And yes, you lodge a complaint with your editor.

In the end, it’s your name on the cover, and your final say on how a book should read, so stand your ground.

But don’t go in assuming that the CE is your enemy.

*or red phosphor, if your publisher has gone digital

** I really wanted to get a professional CE to mark up this essay, to show you what I mean.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the marks to show up…


Coming up in Week 21:  How to Get Your Reading Grove Back

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future, will be published by  Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 20 — 8 Comments

  1. Your copy editor would have caught the misspelling of groove in your “Coming next week….” tag. lol

    Unless you meant to say that you are going to tell us how to get our reading group of trees back. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this post. I appreciate hearing about the practical aspects of being a published author, not just the horror stories. 🙂

  3. I have twice been handed copyedits by editors who apologized, saying the CE had been heavy handed and not to take it personally and that they’d never use that person again, and really, I didn’t have to accept any of her edits and…

    …in fact the CEs were not out of line. I changed some things back, kept others, and kept my sanity. Because really, the copyeditor is there to keep me from looking like an idiot, which is a thing I like.

  4. I only had one near disaster. The CE moved a scene change mark back 6 paragraphs. In this particular series I had 2 first person narrators with entirely different voices, so I had a font change for the secondary narrator who didn’t show up nearly as often as the primary. The CE moved the font change back to the newly marked scene change AND forward another 6 paragraphs into the next scene. he/she also changed the spelling of a word I had made up to something incomprehensible. A foreign and weird spelling but authentic got Anglicized and totally changed the feel of the weirdness.


    I should rejoice that out of 22 books I only had the one bad one. Most of the time I rejoice at the fixes because I come across as less of an idiot.

  5. Over the course of 45 books, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as the absurd and the anal. I need a good strong hand on the reins, so even though I weep and gnash my teeth while staring at rivers of red blood across my pages, after i do my burn-them-all-in-hell dance, I knuckle down and get to work. But sometimes…just sometimes…you get one who needs to burn. “G”

  6. What I’m thinking is that it might be helpful if y’all – writers with experience of being copyedited – could produce a guide for copy editors new to the genre, because you probably run into the same things over and over.

  7. I am even now organizing a “Dear Copy Editor” article to do that…as soon as I send this box of copy edits back to NYC.

    I’ve also had the good (wonderful!), the mediocre, and the truly awful. I love it when they catch real mistakes. I hate it when, in the course of trying to make the book something they think they’d write, they miss real mistakes. We need copy editors–the really good ones are worth their weight in expensive dark chocolate–but we need good copy editors. Bad copy editors are worse than useless. They waste a writer’s time, increase a writer’s stress level, and damage the relationship between writer and publisher.

    How are copy editors trained, and by whom? What are their marching orders? Why do bad ones persist in publishing? (I can think of reasons, but don’t know if they’re valid: a CE who turns in a marked manuscript on time or early every time may be valued by Production even though doing a lousy job, from the writer’s POV.) Is there any way to forestall a bad copy editor’s urge to “fix” what isn’t wrong?

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