What’s So Hard About Reading a Cover Letter?

Photo: Jessica Lucia

Honestly, what is it about writers of scholarly books that makes 33.4 percent of them* think they’re above reading instructions—never mind following them—when they receive an edited manuscript or page proofs? Don’t they ask their students to follow directions on exams? Don’t they sit on dissertation committees that require conformity with a set of instructions? Haven’t they been told since kindergarten to follow the rules?

It’s not as though proofreading instructions are arbitrary and frivolous. Rather, they allow precise communication of a writer’s intentions. Following them prevents expensive typesetting errors and charges for excessive alterations to proof. Although copy editors may have various pathetic ways to assert power over writers, requiring them to read a cover letter and follow the instructions is not one of them.

Three true stories:

—Professor A copies me on a panicky e-mail to her freelance copy editor (subject line URGENT MESSAGE!) reporting that she isn’t able to accept or reject the tracked changes in the edited manuscript. The freelancer copies me on the reply: “Yes, the files have been locked on purpose, as I indicated in my cover note to you. We do not want you to accept or reject the changes. Merely indicate whether the changes are acceptable to you, and then when you send the files back to me, I will unlock the MS and accept or reject the changes based on your review. Here, again, are the instructions. . . . ”

—Professor B writes a huffy message complaining that he cannot find the notes in the edited MS I sent him. I reply that I took them out of his separate notes file and linked them individually to the callout numbers in the main text file, embedding them electronically. He replies with sarcasm that I might have told him. (From my cover letter: “I have embedded the notes electronically so they’re tied to the corresponding location in the text. I’m noting it only so you won’t be startled by it.”)

—Profs S through Z (I’ll spare you C­ through R) return their page proofs in reasonable shape—except for flat-out ignoring my cover-letter instruction that added text be compensated for by cutting an equal amount of text nearby, and vice versa. In some instances, they add whole paragraphs, perhaps expecting that the printer will simply tape a little flap into every book as it’s printed.

And then there are writers who do read and follow the instructions, but manage to introduce complications that weren’t explicitly prohibited. This made me think that I should start compiling a list of don’ts for my cover letter:

  • Please don’t write all your changes on yellow stickies instead of on the MS or proof.
  • Please don’t make corrections to your original Word files and send them as a replacement for the edited MS.
  • Please don’t wait until the day after the proofs are due back and then offer to read me all your corrections over the phone.
  • Please don’t scan your proofs at 25 percent and send back a two-sided printout with two proof pages to a side.
  • Please don’t staple strips of retyped sentences over the sections you want replaced.

My usual practice is to attach my cover letter and a PDF of the proofs to an e-mail in which I beg the writer to read the cover letter all the way through, “even if your eyes begin to glaze over,” and I explain why this is important. But on the theory that the problem begins with an unthinking arrogance on the part of the writer (Who me? Take instruction from a copy editor? I could do this in my sleep!), I’m wondering whether I might get better results if I simply wrote, “If your marks on the proofs are nonstandard, you may incur typesetting charges. Let me know if you need any help.”


*If I don’t cite a source when I give a number, it means I made it up, but it doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. All estimates are based on 20.8 years of editing and include a .75 multiplier to offset exaggeration from frustration.

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Readers may send Carol questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing. Write to her at (Please ask questions about Chicago style here.)

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