Copy editors are your friends, usually

I enjoyed this post by John Gilstrap about copy editors, over at Kill Zone Blog: Note to Copy Editor

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

I would add, a startling ability to remember details from page 2 when they hit something contradictory on page 453. I am pretty good at that, but most copy editors seem to have a magical talent for that kind of memory.

I’ve never had a bad experience with a copy editor. I’ve had copy editors who suggested tons of specific changes, many of which I actually accepted; and copy editors who mostly just said “Rep okay?” and left it to me to fix when I used the same word three times in one paragraph, which is generally not okay but pretty hard for me to avoid.

I’ve never had anything like this delightful example from the post:

At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Hah! I guess that particular copy editor doesn’t read thrillers, but frankly the tone of the book she was reading ought to have made it crystal clear to her that she shouldn’t suggest phrases like “whence the kid had just come.” Good heavens, what a ridiculous change. If the copy editor is that much of a stickler, she ought to have suggested “through which the kid had just come,” which wouldn’t sound so silly although the author might still prefer the original.

The copy editor who suggested lots of phrases in one of mine stuck to a high fantasy style; that’s why I could glance at her changes and accept a lot of them.

I did have a copy editor who wanted to change “arquebus” to “harquebus” in MOUNTAN. I don’t know why. Both are acceptable. In my firm opinion, the first spelling just looks better on the page, so I changed them all back with a note that I REALLY prefer the former spelling to the latter. Probably not a single reader would have cared one way or the other, but it pleases me to see my preferred spelling on the page.

Changing the type of pistol is pretty egregious.

I also preferred the paper manuscript to a Word file with track changes turned on . . . I detest track changes . . . but I don’t find it makes the process of going over copy edits as arduous as Gilstrap does, fortunately. Plus I used to worry about a marked-up manuscript getting lost in the mail. That would be a right nuisance. Not a concern with emailed manuscripts.

Gilstrap then shows us the letter he includes for his copy editors. One item stands out for me, in glowing red letters ten feet tall:

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

What a terrible, terrible idea.

Every now and then a deliberate run-on or comma splice can be an excellent choice. Comma splices in dialogue or thoughts can give a breathless quality that is hard to achieve without them. But . . . comma splices everywhere, all the time? Bad, bad idea. If you do this, then I, at least, will probably read no more than one of your books. If that.

I suppose it would be different if you write in short complete sentences and never, or hardly ever, produce a comma splice by use of this no-semicolon rule. Perhaps that is the case with Gilstrap. But I was just reading an ebook where somehow a lot of comma splices had appeared — most of them were not there in the original book — and I found it virtually unreadable and wound up just deleting it from my Kindle.

I will add, I’ve never yet had a copy editor who tried to make dialogue grammatically correct when I plainly intended for it to be grammatically incorrect. I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by saying that, but so far every single copy editor I’ve worked with understood style and tone and worked with my book, not against it.

So, yeah, still a fan of copy editors! I hope I never feel compelled to add a letter to a copy editor as Gilstrap does.

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4 thoughts on “Copy editors are your friends, usually”

  1. Back when I was floundering for ways to earn a living I trained as a copyeditor for a textbook publisher. Did some but decided it wasn’t for me. Anyway, one bit that lingers from that stint was that authors really need to use stylesheets so the copyeditor can help them, not hinder them. Things specific to your book, such as names (especially in SF/F but even if your mundane set story has one of those names like.. oh, Elaine/Elayne/Allayne/Elane/etc … list the spelling you intended so the CE can make sure you were consistent.
    Grammatical quirks, specialty spellings, character descriptions (I’ve read a professionally published book or two where the character is blond and blue-eyed at first appearance, quite a few chapters and story years later, she’s dark haired and dark eyed.
    The hair I could swallow, lots of blonds darken, but not the eyes. … All for the stylesheet and everyone would be much happier.

    That’s what the OP finally did, but should have begun earlier.

    I boggle at the changing of the type of firearm. At most there should have been a query.

  2. My husband had an editor change technical content in a nonfiction work. The editor changed an IP address to one with an impossible value, and changed a diagram. I mean, sure, make it more attractive, but don’t change values or which arrows go where!

  3. A few years ago I wrote a comment in C J Cherryh’s page criticising her for a number of consistency and factual errors in her book “Intruder” and said I expected better quality from her books. She wrote back and apologised; and also explained that when she got the copy edits back the copy editor had fancied him/herself a better writer than CJC and had made some wholesale changes to the book that totally butchered the characters, especially Cajeiri. She had to go back to a pre-edit version of the manuscript and managed to meet her deadline but errors did get through.
    Another example of copy editor horrors is the time Martha Wells found that the copy editor practically “disappeared” Reynard from the “Death of the Necromancer” manuscript because she didn’t think a gay character should be so prominent! Martha said she fought to keep him and wrote about the incident on her blog post. So, yes, a style sheet is a very good idea.

  4. Re: CJC’s experience: Whoa. Unbelievable. Not that I don’t believe it, but . . . unbelievable.

    Re: Martha Wells’ experience: Whoa. That’s actually pretty much the same thing, isn’t it, though? The copy editor figuring she’s a better writer than the author and thus should be making decisions about which characters should be more or less important. Again, unbelievable.

    Re: the copy editor making changes to a technical work . . . good heavens. I mean . . . What the hell?

    I usually get a stylesheet from the copy editor, including a list of character names. But yes, I can see how preemptively providing that would be useful.

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