Feet to the Fire (in grudging praise of good editing)

Last night, after a long conversation with my editor, I girded my loins and trudged into my absolute least favorite part of the book publishing process: the copy edit. You know the drill. After you've slaved for months over every word of this manuscript, some anal retentive, OCD-driven, hyper-literal grammar purist who never gets your sense of humor puts your work through the wood chipper and throws the pulp back on your desk with a parsimonious sneer. "Fix it."

Praise God and pass the red pencil.

As insanely annoying as it is to be tweezed on punctuation that is "technically correct but could be misinterpreted" and clever wording that "may be too arcane" and beloved passages that "cross the line of elegant variation" (I could go on, but that would be "an abuse of rule-bending parameters in the absence of serial commas"), I've grown to love and appreciate the people who do this work. A book lasts a long time. It should be tasked with correctness. It should be finely milled and meticulously crafted. Most importantly, however, it should say what the author wants it to say, and if the copy editor trips over something, that's a red flag that says some readers are not going to get it.

I've been doing this a long time, and I came out of parochial school with excellent traditional grammar and punctuation skills to begin with, so I hand off a pretty clean manuscript. A lot of the mark up is about the publisher's style sheet. At Simon & Schuster, the copy ed capitalized "the President"; now my Random House copy ed is striking it for lowercase. The serial comma, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition -- all the rules are meant to be bent and broken, but not without a second glance from the writer.

A helpful hint for those early in their publishing career: use sticky notes for comments. Invariably, I get more and more annoyed as I go through the first half of the manuscript. I start out giving things a firm three dots and "stet!", but after a while, I can't resist commenting on the comments. I angrily whip into the margins: "Really? We need to spend another eight seconds of our lives changing 'Bill said' to 'said Bill'? Seriously?!"

By the 75% mark, I've realized that the copy editor has prevented me from embarrassing myself at least half a dozen times, and I have to go back and try to erase my red pencil retorts, which never works. I always end up returning the ms with a sheepishly grateful note for the copy ed's academic cat-o-nine-tails. It's the copy editor's job to flag every little thing and the writer's job to weigh that marking and decide if the choice is worth a potential speed bump for the reader. Key to sanity maintenance is seeing the ed's mark as saying "Maybe you should think about this?" instead of "Jayzee Q. Cripes, you're an idiot!"

I have nothing against self-publishing, but self-editing is self-delusion, and I worry about the growing sense that strenuous, objective editing isn't necessary. Margaret Mitchell's editor suggested changing the main character's name from "Pansy" to "Scarlet." That kinda says it all. (Make that "kind of." I've been told "'kinda' is a colloquialism that doesn't translate as well as Southern writers imagine." But then I've also been told "the capitalization of 'Southern' is no longer de rigueur.") And if you think anyone is above being edited, check out this item from the New Yorker's "Book Bench."


Mylène said…
Sending this to a friend of mine who is a copy editor for Penguin Putnam. She'll appreciate it.
Writers owe a debt of gratitude to all the hard-working editors and copy-editors out there who make us look us smart!

Sure, occasionally one crosses over the line or somehow gets distracted and misses the obvious, but over the years, they've spared me many a humiliation, from typos to the use of something not yet invented in a historical to countless calendar boo boos. (My manuscripts regularly suffer space-time warps.)

So thanks to all of you, and to those of you who aren't closely, attentively edited. That's not a favor anyone's doing you. Not at all.
4ndyman said…
As a copy editor, I just wanted to thank you.
Mohan said…
It's the copy editor's job to flag every little thing and the writer's job to weigh that marking and decide if the choice is worth a potential speed bump for the reader.
Del Lonnquist said…
I read books for the Montana Talking Book library. My monitor who sits on the other side of the glass in the studio follows along line by line. I make a mistake, she stops me. When we find a typo or something the editor has missed WE GASP! This is not supposed to happen and we are to read the book exactly as written. Do we correct the missing word or the badly used word? Thanks to all the editors who find the mistake so we don't have to. The blind and disabled appreciate you!

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