One of the laws of composition (typesetting) back in the olden days was “follow the copy out of the window”. If the author misspells their own name on the title page of the manuscript you have to assume they meant to and set it that way. There was naturally a strong temptation not to follow that diktat — keyboarding apparent nonsense is not something a craftsman would be eager to become involved in. Still I imagine most experienced keyboarders would be able to protect their sanity by an ability to switch off their critical mode while focussing their attention on accuracy.

John Carter, in ABC for book collectors, describes the situation thus:


“The compositor’s watchword, and his defence against the illegibility, inconsequentiality, impenetrability or errors of the author’s text. But often he failed to follow its dictate, the itch to correct or normalise being too great. In extreme cases, however, he could take refuge in the full text of the adage, and ‘Follow copy out of the window’.”

Now of course there were a few situations where author and compositor almost became collaborators. There were comps at Cambridge University Press who, meeting manuscript or typescript from a local professor for the fifth or sixth time, would take it upon themselves to correct the author’s Greek or mathematics — after all anyone can make a slip of the pen or typewriter key, and even the most eminent professor can have a blind spot. Some even got acknowledged in the front matter of the final book.* But the key feature of this process was the requirement that authorial attention should be drawn to the changes. If the author hits the wrong key and asserts that 2 x 2 makes 5, your duty will tilt to the other side of the scale — but mark the change on a proof so that the Professor of Combinatorics can assess the situation. Of course just because you may not approve of this or that author’s views on what to you is revealed truth, you don’t have a God-given right or duty to silently amend the “blasphemy.” (Go far enough back and I suppose your prejudice would have been supported by force of law.)

This sort of thing, cleaning up errors, you may object, is exactly what editors and copyeditors are meant to be doing: and so it is. The same process of marking the correction in the manuscript, or using computer software which color codes corrections to allow approval by the original author, is pretty universally followed nowadays at this earlier stage of production. We are well organized on this front these days, but there were times, and types of manuscript, which were less thoroughly prepared before the compositor got hold of them, maybe journals and periodicals for example. Go back a century or even less, and no publisher employed people called copyeditor; such nuts and bolts were left to the printers.

When book publishers worked in manuscript or typescript rather than computer files the whole stack of paper would be wrapped up in a paper and string parcel and mailed back to the author after the copyeditor had gone through it and made all their alteration marks. Along the way the copyeditor would have discussed any thorny or contentious matters with the author in a phone call, or more likely in those days, an exchange of letters. When checking the copyedited manuscript, the author it was assumed would carefully consider each change, but of course reality breaks through and many an author, learning to trust the copyeditor after the first few pages, would make a short back and sides job of it.

Following a well-prepared manuscript out of the window would present minimal risk of damage. And there’s always the proofing to come.


* A positive reaction was not however universal. See Jeremy Mynott’s comment to the post Manufacturing defects telling of Professor A. E. Housman’s reaction to the proofs of one of his books.