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In Praise Of Copy Editors: Masters Of Accuracy, by Monika Schroder

After the final revision when author and editor have shaped a manuscript into its final form and before it goes to the printer, copy editors comb through the text check spelling, word choice, syntax, accuracy and the logic of the text.

My novel My Brother’s Shadow is set in 1918 Berlin and the turbulent events at the end of World War I are woven into the story. For my research I read primary and secondary resources and kept a timeline to make sure that the dates and descriptions of actual historical events mentioned in the story are correct. I sent that timeline together with a list of primary resources to the copy editors. They checked my sources thoroughly and sent me follow-up questions about several quotes. For example, did my translation of an excerpt of Kaiser Wilhelm’s speech given at the beginning of the war in the spring of 1914 conform with the original? The copy editors also made sure that the dates mentioned in the text were correct. If a newspaper boy calls out a headline regarding the resignation of General Ludendorff a copy editor checked whether the date of such a headline was in fact October 27, 1918.

Copy editors also pay attention to logical sequence and consistency in the description of setting. For example, if two characters begin their conversation at a particular place and there is no mention of them moving, they cannot be talking in another location on the next page without an explanation of how they got there. This seems obvious yet, while revising, an author might cut a sentence with this information and forget to add it later. In this case the copy editor might add this note on the margins of the manuscript: “Moritz and Aaron’s chat has been taking place outside the print shop, per p. 136. How is it that they are now (on p. 137) at Aaron’s desk?”

The copy editor also makes sure that the weather stays the same within a scene and that if the character walks up four flights of stairs to visit his aunt in chapter one, that same apartment still needs to be on the same floor if mentioned again later in the book.

Punctuation rules in English differ from those in my native German. Over time I have learned more about where to correctly place a comma or a semicolon, yet I am grateful that copy editors help me to bring consistency to punctuation usage throughout my manuscript. They also know when a word needs to be hyphenated and make sure I am consistent in using contractions in dialogue. And, I am embarrassed to admit, in My Brother’s Shadow I was overcome by an overuse of exclamation marks, but with the gentle help of the copy editor we weeded most of them out.

Finally, copy editors make suggestions for word choice. When writing a book of historical fiction I try to use a style and vocabulary that suits the era. But in spite of my own efforts to employ authentic word choice there are always a few mistakes that only come to light thanks to the diligence of the copy editors.

Early on in the story I mentioned that Moritz meets a journalist from the newsroom. The copy editor checked Webster’s dictionary and noted the word ‘newsroom’ was not in common use until 1929. So if my book takes place in 1918 I should hardly use a word that was not used at the time. This was also true for a scene with a German shepherd that I finally changed to a nondescript ‘dog’ since the copy editor noted that this breed was only officially named in 1926.

Copy editors must surely be patient and just a bit wise. I am sure that they often shake their heads at mistakes we writers make. These people who work through a manuscript with such thorough attention to detail have my full admiration. It is thanks to them that a clean and accurate manuscript finds its way to the printer.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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