Publishing's Unsung Heroes: Copy Editors

10/09/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

The copy bubbles are everywhere on the manuscript:

"I crossed out 'Tuesday' because later you say it's Wednesday."

"She's fifty-nine here and fifty-eight on page 102. Which one?"

"If he Googles the land line, why is she answering the call on her cell phone?"

I'm going through the copy editor's remarks on my newest novel -- the one that will be published by Penguin Random House as Haven Lake in April 2015. And, once again, I can't believe all the mistakes I made in this book -- even after eight or nine revisions, two of which were done in collaboration with my savvy, brilliant editor.

Writers and readers sometimes wonder why it takes so long to publish a book with a traditional house. Here's why: every step of the process takes time.

First, you send your novel to an agent, who (you hope) likes it enough to shop it around to various suitable editors. An editor buys it (you hope) and goes through the manuscript, suggesting revisions in an editorial letter. You address her queries and suggestions, and then you send the revised manuscript back to the editor. The editor then reads through the new draft and sends it back to you with (you hope) fewer suggestions, catching a few fine points here and there, praising you or telling you to rework certain sections. You do all that and send it back.

Four books ago, I thought the next step would be publication, but oh no. The next step is copy editing, and here's where the party really begins: a copy editor is someone who takes out her bright lamp, microscope and fine-toothed comb. She nit-picks through each one of your pages, catching time transitions that don't make sense, erroneous spellings, accent marks if one of your characters happens to speak a foreign language, word repetitions, name changes or hair color changes you forgot you made, etc. In other words, the copy editor is a fierce, mistake-seeking hound, nosing around in every dark corner of every paragraph to make sure you get things right.

Thank God.

Copy editors are worth their weight in gold, yet hardly ever garner a mention. So here it is, a shout-out to you, copy editors around the world: we writers and readers are so lucky to have you smoothing sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Thank you for all of your hard work.

And for those of you who are self-publishing books, some advice: if you have any extra funds, do yourselves a favor and hire a copy editor. Your books -- and your reputation as a writer -- will be better because of it.

Now back to my manuscript and the copy editor's bubble comments in the margin:

"It can't be Saturday here, because you said it was a school day earlier."

"Same words in previous sentence. Change here?"

As John Cleese of Monty Python would say, "My brain hurts." But it's so worth it. No manuscript will ever be perfect. But, thanks to copy editors, we can get closer.