editors, copyeditors, division of labor

There’s a battle that people don’t talk about much, one that goes on (has always, will always) between authors and editors, most particularly copy editors.

I have been very fortunate in the editors who I’ve worked with on my novels. For the most part, I’ve been able to get along the with copy editors, too. But especially with copy editors, there’s always a bit of tension. I imagine it’s the same kind of push-pull that exists between architects and engineers.

The thing any author wants and hopes for from an editor are pretty simple, the first and most important being: please catch me when I fall. That means, if a paragraph is impossible to follow, I need to know. If I used the wrong character name, please, shout. If I’ve got the wrong word (sure, this happens once in a while) then by all means, don’t keep it to yourself. Most of all I want a copy editor to catch me when I repeat myself. I hate doing that, and while I re-read a hundred times, I will always miss a few instances where I let the same word creep into a sentence or paragraph after it’s come to the end of its usefulness.

From a really good editor, one whose instincts I trust, I hope for more. I hope that editor will raise deeper and more complicated issues, for example: do you feel this is enough of a transition for readers who are new to the series? Or: this feels a beat too long to me, or: Have you read this dialog out loud? [one way of saying, this sounds awkward]. And a big one: Do you realize that you’ve used this imagery [facial expression, turn of phrase] before on pages xx, xx, xx and xx ?

These are things that make the editorial process important to me personally. Less important to me (and I think, to most authors) are issues of spelling and punctuation. I’m pretty good at that stuff, probably because I have done my share of editing, but I’m not perfect. And there’s a reason: it bores me, and worse, it distracts me from the important stuff.

I am writing this partially in response to Pat Holt’s essay Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do) , in which she (as editor) shakes her finger at authors for comma sins:

Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.


Well, sorry, but I can do that, if I find it necessary in a particular passage. I will admit that it’s usually not necessary , but I reserve the right to omit commas the same way I reserve the right to compose (on occasion) really, really long sentences. She goes on:

Entire books have been written about punctuation. Get one. “The Chicago Manual of Style” shows why punctuation is necessary in specific instances. If you don’t know what the rules are for, your writing will show it.

Now see, this is where we get into trouble. Pat Holt is a great editor, by all accounts, but she and I would not get on. Does this tone put me in a snit? Damn tootin’.

I would guess that about 90 percent of the editorial marks in the manuscript I’ve got in front of me have to do with commas. The copy editor wants serial commas. I don’t use them. Do I care? Not really. If s/he wants to go through 1,170 manuscript pages aligning commas, I’m fine with that as long as the outcome is consistent and it doesn’t interfere with some greater purpose of mine. Should I have done this while I was writing? The answer is simple: hell no. I’m juggling a hundred characters, a half dozen plot lines, three different battles, two love stories, and a million words of backstory. When I’m re-writing I’m looking hard at characters, the way they talk to each other, what they do. The commas are of secondary (or even tertiary) importance, as are other matters of punctuation-rules-of-the-moment (because much of punctuation is, in case you never noticed, a matter of style, and changes over time).

The bottom line is this: my job is making sure the story works, the characters move, the conflicts engage. Sometimes, rarely, I use punctuation as a tool to achieve a desired effect. In those cases, I simply tell the copy editor (by means of that wonderful abbreviation sic) to Leave It As I Wrote It. Thus far, nobody has gone to war with me about such an incident. I hope that never happens.

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2 Replies to “editors, copyeditors, division of labor”

  1. This one was very interesting to read, as a person who does a lot of copy-editing for friends and acquaintances (term papers, resum?s, presentations, etc). I’ve always been almost afraid to point out the kinds of errors you most want editors to find for you; I do point them out, just with much trepidation. Meanwhile, I tend to obsess about things like commas, although I try to recognize the writer’s style, where appropriate, and just aim for consistency rather than some objective standard which might not fit with the overall work. I’m a real fiend for apostrophes though. :)

  2. Gosh, I hate to be a smarty pants, but do you win a prize if you find a mistake in the article “Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See…” (lol)

    Item # 6
    4th paragraph
    “and ripped up he linoleum.”

    I’m sure she meant to say, “the linoleum.”

    It’s a minor mistake, and I feel lousy for even pointing it out. I’m the last person who should be pointing out other’s mistakes. But if you are gonna rip into writers for the mistakes they make, and call it ‘Mistakes Writers Don’t See,’ you should try to fix your own mistakes first.

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