Now, I don’t know anyone alive who enjoys criticism (no matter how constructive) and having their mistakes pointed out, and I am no exception to the rule. Having just gone through this process with The Kentucky Oaks: 150 Years of Running for the Lilies, I have now done this five times with five different books, and I can’t say I like it any better the fifth time than I did the first. It’s embarrassing to be caught out on typos and basic grammatical and spelling mistakes, especially after I’ve read and re-read my own text several times before ever submitting it. I know perfectly well why this happens: the mind, familiar with both what it is seeing and the intended meaning, simply skates right over the errors without processing that they are there. It takes fresh eyes to catch these things, and on one level I’m grateful to the copy editor for bringing the mistakes to my attention; better her (or him) than the eventual readers. On another, I still feel like the kid who gets a paper marked up with red ink back from the high school English teacher.
The markups regarding questions about meaning and wording are even less welcome, though equally necessary. Writers are nearly as jealous and sensitive regarding their work as a mom with a new baby, and equally likely to feel resentment and hurt that their offspring is seen as less than perfect—even blemished. Good sense and civility both demand that you not take it out on the copy editor for doing the job she (he) is paid to do; if the editor isn’t clear on what you mean or finds something potentially problematic, chances are at least some readers will feel the same way. Some things just have to be reworded for clarity or to bring in a greater depth of meaning, and that’s part and parcel of the writing process. When it comes to sensitivities that are more personal or cultural—well, that’s a judgment call. Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge a blind spot and bow before the prevailing wind; at other times, you may decide that you must take your stand with Horton the Elephant (“I meant what I said and I said what I meant!”). I’ve done both.
Aside from dealing with the inevitable corrections, the copy editing stage has one other aspect that would make a lot of writers prefer eating a super-sour gummy worm (my apologies to those who really like super-sour gummy worms), and that’s a fresh opportunity for self-criticism. After being away from your work for weeks or months, chances are that some of what you’ve written is going to strike you as well below what you hoped for when you originally put it down. If you’re lucky or less self-critical than most, there will also be parts that you look at and find pretty darned good, but for me, most of the time the satisfying parts tend to be outweighed by the “I-wish-I’d done-this-better” parts, even when the passages that I find acceptable or better outnumber the others by ten to one. Since copy editing isn’t really the place for massive overhauls (those should have taken place earlier, probably under the eye of the acquisitions editor and the review readers), about all I can do when I hit these points is to accept that I’ve done what I can, learn from them for next time, and move on.
Ultimately, getting through the copy editing phase of book production takes three things. One is the self-discipline to stick to a tedious task until it is finished. One is the maturity to accept that you’re not perfect and to continue growing from the process of correcting your mistakes. And the last one is to recognize that when all is said and done, you and the copy editor are on the same team, with a common goal of producing a successful book.