Brittany Smail on the Importance of Editors and Copyeditors [INTERVIEW]

Brittany Smail is a copyeditor and writer who helps major book publishers, corporate clients, and indie authors polish a wide range of writing, from full-length book manuscripts and poetry chapbooks to ad copy and client presentations. She holds an MFA in poetry and literary translation from San Francisco State University and a professional certificate in editing from UC Berkeley Extension. We spoke with Brittany in the latest episode of The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. Excerpts from the interview are included below.

James Morehead: What are your earliest memories of writing being fun and not homework? 

Brittany Smail: “I think it was in the second grade and we had to create a book, a physical book. We wrapped the cover in fabric, cut the pages, and I remember my dad helping me. He got really excited about it, so we wrote it together. We wrote a story that was called “Turn left at the horse”, which makes no sense at all. Maybe that’s why I later got into poetry, because I love things that don’t make sense! But I remember having so much fun. That was the line. We had turned left at the horse and I made a whole story around it. So I guess writing a story.”

James: I still have the book that I made in kindergarten with a fabric cover, something science fiction. It was very impactful to create a physical book. How did you discover not just writing but editing other people’s work?

Brittany: “I think they go hand in hand. When I’m reading, I’m looking at the mechanics. I’m trying to understand how meaning is being made. I think I always did that naturally. When something trips me up, or when I think something could be reworded, it just naturally catches my attention. In grad school and doing poetry workshops you’re actively helping somebody improve, helping them fix problems.”

James: There are many different disciplines in the publishing industry. Let’s break down two of them: describe the distinction between an editor and a copyeditor.

Brittany: “When I tell people I’m a copyeditor they usually don’t know what that means. An editor is somebody that an author is generally working with in the early stages of creating a finished manuscript. While that changes for every project, and for every author, the editor is there when the manuscript is getting written and put together. A copyeditor comes in when you have what is basically a finished manuscript. No manuscript is ever really finished, and with a lot of authors we’re going to be making changes right up until the end, but the copyeditor comes in, looks at that manuscript and cleans up everything in your book, polishing things with fresh eyes. Once the copyeditor is done, a published book often goes through a proofreader as well, so there are other eyes on the manuscript.” 

James: I’ve benefited from your skills as a copyeditor for several projects and have been amazed at both the precision of your work, how you ensure letter perfect manuscripts, and the subtle feedback you provide. Break down for me how a copyeditor approaches a project. 

Brittany: “It does change from project to project, but I’ll get, maybe, a quarter of the way through the manuscript before I understand the author’s voice and style. I then continue to edit the rest of the manuscript looking for anything I can do to help the language be the best that it can be. You’re trying to make the writer the best writer they can be, which is why the particular writer’s style is important. You’re looking for the basics, for grammatical errors, maybe a subject-verb agreement problem. You’re looking for typos, lots of things slip through spell check, things like homophones or different spellings.

“You’re looking for wordy language. Writers come from all different backgrounds and a lot of writers tend to write like they speak if they’re not professionally trained. You’re looking to help them clean up things, things that would be fine in speech but maybe not so good in a book. I start with a spell check first and then get my head wrapped around the author’s voice and work all the way through the manuscript. I go through most manuscripts twice, if I have time. You want the whole manuscript to be coherent, to fit from beginning to end.”

James: As I read my manuscript over and over I find it harder to catch small mistakes. One advantage you have is seeing material with fresh eyes, but I know it’s much more than that. What are some of the key skills you learned in university that you apply on projects?

Brittany: “Some of it is like any other skill. You’ve been trained to look for particular things. So at this point, I stop every time I see an apostrophe and read the word out loud. There are particular words that tend to be problem words for everyone, so those words will just jump off the page at this point.

“It’s hard to tell somebody else how to do it, it’s just something you gain over time by paying attention to particular things over and over. My roommate makes fun of me because I read out loud when I edit, to trick my brain into not doing what we all do when we read, which is reading past things. Our brains are very efficient and will fill in words. But as a copyeditor, I read out loud so that I have to hear the words, it slows me down.”

James: What role do resources like the Chicago Manual of Style play in your work? 

Brittany: “The Chicago Manual of Style is my Bible. There are different style guides for different industries. Publishing tends to use the Chicago Manual of Style. I have a browser open with their website all the time. I know we have talked, with your manuscripts, about whether or not to hyphenate certain compound words. I’ve heard copyeditors joke about getting the Chicago Manual of Style Hyphenation Guide (which is a chart) tattooed on their bodies because we look at it so much. Any copyeditor who tells you they know everything is a bad copyeditor. I look up things all the time to make sure that I understand the corrections I’m making, that I’m not just making them because it feels right, or sounds right. I want to know the rules that I’m applying and that’s what the Chicago Manual of Style is for, It has all those rules.”

James: Is your job as a copyeditor easier or harder depending on whether or not you are enjoying the manuscript you are reading? 

Brittany: “It doesn’t play as much of a role as you think. I enjoy a manuscript as a copyeditor in a different way than I enjoy it as a reader. There might be a book that I wouldn’t enjoy reading very much as just a reader, but as a copyeditor it becomes interesting to me because of the kinds of problems it’s presenting to me. Problems that are interesting and engaging even if it’s something I wouldn’t read. It’s helpful when I like the author’s style, or author’s voice, because that’s just a pleasure, but I find that if you can really learn an author’s voice you end up enjoying everything. You enjoy helping the author sound as much like themselves as they can.”

James: When you are reading for pleasure do you pick up on the quality of editing or, conversely, are you distracted by poor editing?

Brittany: “Yes, but I was that way before I was a copyeditor! I tended to read much more closely than most of the people I know, so thought, maybe this is something I should monetize. When I’m reading for pleasure I try to turn that off a little bit because, like you said, once you are really trained to look for something, it can become distracting in your regular life. I’m actually pretty good at turning off the editor in my head when I’m reading for pleasure.” 

James: This is a plug for what you do. I recommend all writers hire a copyeditor to make sure their manuscript is letter perfect. It’s so distracting when a book, or an article, has mistakes. 

Brittany: “It’s distracting. I ordered a book a few years ago about travel ideas that was self-published. The book had lots of good ideas, but it had so many mistakes, really obvious mistakes, and that brings down your opinion of the author or the publisher right away. Any good advice that was in that book became tainted by the poor editing.” 

James: As you know I write poetry, you do as well. How does your approach change depending on the form of the manuscript?

Brittany: “Copyediting is different with poetry. It’s really, really enjoyable. The difference being when I’m working with prose there are rules that are really easy to apply. It’s really easy to fix things. The author just didn’t know where a comma was supposed to go, or was writing too quickly and made something too conversational.

“With poems, poets are making very specific choices about everything that’s on that page. And that’s part of poetry, some of those little elements that are just helpful in prose, become really important in poetry. With your manuscript instead of just applying rules. I would ask you, is this comma here for a reason? Or did you want to hyphenate this or not? I don’t want to make any assumptions about what’s there, intentionally or not. It’s much more interactive with poetry. 

“There are no rules in poetry at all. I would, like for prose, understand your style. If a comma or a particular word doesn’t seem to be fitting within that particular poem or the manuscript in general, that’s when I’ll ask is this intentional or not?”

James: Finally, what advice do you have for first time authors working with an editor or copyeditor?

Brittany: “It’s great to speak with the editor first, especially if you’re hiring somebody directly. Talk with the editor about what you want for your manuscript. It can be just a quick little phone call or interview so that you’re on the same page about what you want the editor to do with your book. The editor should ask you questions about what you want. What kind of writer you are. What kind of style you have. Ask questions to make sure they have some experience, that they’ve been well-trained.

“Also don’t feel like the editor’s corrections or edits are the final word. You are the author of your book. The editor is there to help you make it the best book it can be, but you are the one who makes the decisions about what goes out into the world.”

Brittany Smail

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