Over the Transom: manuscript editing

By Claire McCabe Tamberino, ebook and digital promotion manager

In Over the Transom, an occasional series on this blog, we’ll walk you through every step of the bookmaking process, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at just how much work goes into turning a good idea into a great book.

A couple of weeks ago, in our first installment of Over the Transom, we wrote about how Hopkins editors acquire the roughly 200 books the Press publishes every year. The next stop on our bookmaking tour: manuscript editing. It is at this crucial stage that Press editors transform rough manuscripts (and blog posts, thanks!) into polished prose fit for public consumption.

Here is a greatly simplified explanation of the editing process here at the Press. Authors under contract submit a final manuscript, including artwork and permissions, which is then carefully prepared by acquisitions staff for transmittal to manuscript editing. It is assigned to a copyeditor who reviews the manuscript word for word, fixing typos, correcting sentence structure, and checking references along the way. The author then reviews the marked-up manuscript and answers any queries the copyeditor may have. The copyeditor enters all corrections, resolves any outstanding issues, and prepares the manuscript for transmittal to production.

All of this may seem straightforward, but while the rules of grammar are fairly set in stone, or rather in the Chicago Manual of Style (the still indispensable guide for copyeditors now in its 16th edition), there is a real art to copyediting. After months, years, even decades working on their books, authors often cannot see the forest for the trees. It is the job of our talented and dedicated copyeditors to tease out the real essence of a book and ensure that an author’s intended meaning, tone, and ideas are successfully, artistically, and clearly transmitted to readers (JHU Press manuscript editor Michele Callaghan’s post last week about the difference between silver bullets and magic bullets is a fun read on how this all works out). In the words of Hopkins editorial director Greg Britton, “Manuscript editing is a key part of the value scholarly publishers add to the projects they undertake. More than just fixing commas or getting nouns and verbs to agree, a good copyeditor can refine and tighten a writer’s language. In doing so, the editor helps bridge the gap between author and reader. When done well, these subtle changes can work magic.”

Manuscript editing, like the rest of the publishing world, has had to adapt to changing technologies and evolving trends in readership. For generations, copyediting was done with colored pencils on paper manuscript. In the 1980s, computer technology began to transform this work, allowing changes to be made directly to the electronic version of the original manuscript. Less than a decade later, almost all manuscripts arrived at the Press as electronic files and were edited on screen. Now, the end product of a manuscript editor’s careful attention is, in many cases, not only a printed book but electronic editions available on ebook readers and in online collections.

The methods of manuscript editing may have changed over the years, but the practice is still as essential as ever. “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”–Arthur Plotnik, editor and author