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John Deever

Webster's has "leftovers" as a noun, so I think your copyeditor overstepped there.

Likewise adj. redbrick vs. adj. red modifying brick is a judgment call, as are adj.s headfirst & faceup vs. head first and face up in the above image. (Looks like headfirst was done to be consistent with your earlier usage -- one of the most important tasks of copyediting. Just saying some copyeditors would let some of that go as not technically incorrect.


I'd question her judgement on the matter of spaces between periods of ellipses. Typographically speaking, an ellipsis is a single character, so three periods would be incorrect whether you put spaces between or not. Anyone preparing your manuscript for a designer or typesetter to work with would be replacing all those instances of ". . ." or "..." with "…".

Carol Saller

Thomasina, Chicago style puts spaces in the ellipses, and we send them to typesetting that way. I understand that other houses do it the way you propose.

Nancy Flynn

I am an editor who has worked with many manuscripts over the years in similar states of “disrepair” as the one Ms. Fama humorously describes above.

I am also a writer who has taken pains to learn how to copyedit myself out of respect for those who might be editing my work. I read books like The Subversive Copy Editor. I look words up in several dictionaries if I am unsure of hyphenation or compound noun status. I regularly use CMOS to remind myself where the period goes in relation to a close parentheses, what words get capitalized in a title, whether to spell out numerals or not, and if a record album is in italics or merely a song. (In fact, I should porbably look up whether that sentence needs semi-colons instead of commas!) I even check the spelling of words on a printed copy rather than rely on an algorithm in a software program.

I recently submitted some poetry to a literary magazine that has the following as their #2 submission guideline: “We will accept only writing that has been proofread for spelling and grammar. Trust us on this one. We keep our virtual machete very sharp for people who are grammatically challenged, and we are not afraid to use it.”

These days it seems everyone is now a “writer”—and editors are even fewer and farther between. In other creative lines of work--painting, sculpting, musical composition, to name but a few--one would never expect to have someone waiting in the wings to put the necessary finishing touches on a work of art.

Perhaps it behooves those of us who put pen to paper or fingers to QWERTY keyboard to take the time to sharpen our own virtual machetes and learn some of the basic copyediting rules. It really isn’t rocket science.

Carol Saller

Nancy, I think the point of having copyeditors is to free writers for other tasks. I don't agree that writers should learn to copyedit themselves! Writers who worry about details at that level are doomed to crank out pedestrian prose. It's great that writers like you (and--ahem--I?) who happen to have trained as copyeditors can self-edit to a certain degree, but I don't think writers need to train as editors.

Elizabeth Fama

Well, it seems that even my brain needs to be edited. I just searched for the word "leftover" in my original manuscript, and the context is not a noun, as I had remembered (groan...I should have put more care into jotting down examples as I worked through the copyedits).

My original sentence, which the copyeditor correctly fixed: "He reached in and pulled out the chicken cutlets that were leftover from dinner."

I'm pretty sure that if Carol's astute readers find errors in my post that the copyeditor appeared to make, it will turn out that I misreported the "mistake" to begin with.

Carol Saller

Beth, stop beating yourself up. You, dear, are "the talent"!

Here at Chicago I routinely correct the spelling and grammar of PhD English professors, for pete's sake. Like all writers, they're in creative mode while writing, and they depend on copyeditors to catch the little stuff.

But I have to say I love it that in wrestling with these issues, you came to understand my world a little better.

Elizabeth Fama

The funny, paradoxical thing is that I'm quite interested in all the copyediting minutia, I always have been, and I'm highly detail-oriented when it comes to writing and research. I feel like I'd make a good copyeditor in another life. So it surprises me that I don't do better at it through all my revisions. On the other hand, there's research showing that most people think they're prettier than they are (relative to how others rank them), and I think I'm darned cute...

Nancy Flynn

Excellent points, Carol. I think I'm reeling a bit (and getting cranky about self-editing) because I've just come off editing a women's creative writing anthology where far too many of the submissions were not ready for prime time. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors were, sadly, the least of our editorial worries. :-)

Carol Saller

Nancy, I agree that there are limits! Writers should do their best to clean up manuscripts before submitting them, and we'll take it from there.

Bradley Stock

The important thing is that you recognise a weakness, and employ a professional to help (we do this everywhere in our everyday lives). The content is most important with writers, and that's what makes this an interesting and entertaining post. Maybe we should both enrol in Comma Over-users Anonymous.

Kristen Stieffel

@Nancy, I mostly agree with what you say, but I think readers are maybe more -- let's call it "diligent" -- about pointing out typos, etc., than art patrons are about things like brushstrokes. Also, visual arts are largely subjective, but verbal arts are more objective, e.g. whether "leftover" should be two words as a verb.

@Thomasina -- I'm a newspaper page designer, and we do use the ellipsis character. I have a macro for finding and replacing those, so it doesn't take any time to speak of. Like Carol said, it's a matter of house style. As long as it's done one way consistently throughout the document, it's easy to switch.

Allyson Peltier

Thank you for such a thoughtful, honest, and hilarious post! Besides the fact that focusing on the minutiae makes it difficult for a writer to free her creativity, you've also got biology (or is it physiology?) working against you. The fact is, we cannot be completely objective about ourselves. Our brains do certain things to help us get through the day, such as reading incorrectly spelled words as they were meant to be written, and filling in the blanks when grammar is poor or words are missing. Even the best self-editors are bound to miss errors with our brains working against us, which is why a good copyeditor's sharp, eagle eyes are so necessary!

Thank you Elizabeth for sharing and thank you Carol, as always, for a great blog.


Eli Morris-Heft

Wow, what a treat to see one of my favorite bloggers guesting on one of my other favorite blogs! Elizabeth, your posts are always funny and humble, like excellent little stories for telling over a cup of coffee.

I have to say that I don't think I've ever seen "redbrick" as one word and I'd hyphenate "criss-cross"; conversely, "seatbelt" may have once had a space but I've seen it constantly with none, and "wordplay" is certainly without a space. (This last one I can rule on specifically, 'cause I'm a linguist and, uh, 'cause I say so, that's why!)

I can't wait until your book comes out, Elizabeth. I think I will pick up a copy for a friend and then accidentally read it first.

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