Business Musings: The Copyedit from Heck
In late February, I was scrambling to clear the decks for last week’s anthology workshop , I got an email from an editor who had kindly bought one of my stories for a major traditionally published anthology that will appear in November. Attached to the email was the copyedited story, along with a deadline of this week.
No problem. All I had to do was move that copyedit into the proper file on my writing computer so I could work on the manuscript when the workshop was over. However, I have learned that the first thing to do with any file that includes track changes is open the file and make sure the track changes are visible on both my e-mail computer and my writing computer.
I did just that—and hit the ceiling.
Two hours and a lot of invective later, I had completed the copyedit and returned it to the editor at the traditional publishing house, while copying the anthology editor (as per instructions). I wrote the editor at the trad pub house a polite letter that I have written a version of a lot in my career.
I have enclosed the copyedit for my story. The copyeditor took the voice out of the story. I have stetted almost all of her changes. I do apologize for the tone of my comments in track changes as I got deeper into the manuscript. It became clear to me that the copyeditor had no concept of a writer’s personal style.
I have run two separate publishing companies, won awards for my editing, and have trained copyeditors over my thirty-year career. I am hoping that this particular copyeditor saw my opening three lines and decided that I did not know how to punctuate dialogue. Because if the copyeditor treated the other manuscripts in this stellar anthology the way that mine was treated, you have a problem.
I’m stunned that this copyeditor was chosen for an urban fantasy anthology. Urban fantasy is voice- and style-heavy, and should be copyedited with a light hand.
I do hope that you will ensure that my corrections make it into the final volume. …
I received a kind letter in reply from the editor, who works for Random Penguin. She said she forwarded my letter to the managing editor who hired the copyeditor, and promised to make sure the changes were in the volume.
The letter came before last week’s bloodbath at Random Penguin, where most of the mass market division NAL/Berkley is being “repurposed.” Last week, according to Publisher’s Marketplace:
Other outlets and Twitter conversations indicate at least four editors and other support staff have been let go, and that title cuts at the Ace and Roc science fiction and fantasy imprints are on the way.
Note that it says “title cuts.” That means books already purchased will be cut and the contracts canceled. I’ll deal with that in a future blog. For the purposes of this one, though, my letter from less than a month ago is probably like pissing in the wind.
I have no idea if the editor I dealt with still has a job. I have no idea if the managing editor still has a job. I’m assuming the copyeditor from heck isn’t employed with that company, since most traditional publishers’ copyeditors these days are freelancers.
I do know that the volume will appear in November as promised, since the book is available for preorder. I am now braced for a voiceless version of my story to hit print, since I doubt there’s anyone remaining at the company to oversee this volume.
Such is life. In a few months or years after publication (whatever my contract says), I will publish the author’s preferred edition. I do so love the modern era.
I know many of the writers in that volume and was exchanging emails with them on another project. I found out that several of them had had a harsh copyedit too. Some didn’t care (I never read copyedits, one told me), but some got as angry as I did. Of the ones who got angry, only one other writer (that I know of) actually restored the original version. The others told me that the copyeditor knew better.
Nope. No. Not at all. The copyeditor knew the style manual better. The writer knew how to tell a story with an authentic voice better than that copyeditor ever would.
Let me show you why I noticed the problem the moment I opened the file.
My version starts like this:
He said: Our love is deep and powerful, epic.
He said: It will last for all time.
He said: Forever.
The copyeditor changed the opening to this:
He said, Our love is deep and powerful, epic.
He said, It will last for all time.
He said, Forever.
Why did I get my undies in a bundle over colons and commas? Because I wrote that opening for effect. The punctuation gives the story that effect.
Again, let me explain substituting the effect (in bold) for the punctuation.
He said (Big, dramatic pause) Our love is deep and powerful, epic.
He said (Big, dramatic pause) It will last for all time.
He said (Big, dramatic pause) Forever.
Copyeditor version, with effect in bold:
He said, Our love is deep and powerful, epic. (No pause. Tone normal.)
He said, It will last for all time. (No pause. Tone normal.)
He said, Forever. (No pause. Tone normal.)
In the copyeditor version, the emphasis is on the words spoken.
In my version, the emphasis is on the fact that “he” said those words. My version is forceful, the tone either angry or strong or both. The copyeditor’s version is just normal, remembered conversation.
Except…that the copyeditor’s changes are stylistically confusing. When I line edit (which is different from copyediting), I suggest changes that will make a writer’s intent clearer. Here, the copyedit makes my intent muddy.
If the copyeditor thought about clarity, they would have changed the opening three lines to this:
He said, “Our love is deep and powerful, epic.”
He said, “It will last for all time.”
He said, “Forever.”
Now we’re in a flashback, and we don’t struggle against the words. But the copyeditor only did a half-assed job, apparently thinking that I did not know the standard rules for punctuating dialogue.
However, the copyeditor should have had some clues that I did know what I was doing (beside my bio and the fact that I’m in the volume). First, the title “Sales. Force” should have been a clue. There’s punctuation in the title. On purpose.
Second, the paragraph following that opening also has bizarre punctuation.
He died on a Thursday afternoon in midwinter, in Kaylee’s arms, in a stupid hospital room with stupid white walls and a stupid brown blanket covering half of him, on a stupid hospital bed with stupid rails that dug into her back, and stupid machines that beep-beep-beeped, then beepbeepbeepbeeped before the stupid alarm sounded and the stupid doctors and nurses ran into the room with the stupid crash cart that did absolutely nothing.
The copyeditor left that punctuation alone. The corrections to my voice throughout the manuscript seemed random after that, and told me this copyeditor didn’t know what they were doing, despite their understanding of the rules of grammar.
Am I telling you all of this so that you can feel sorry for me if (when) the story comes out with the incorrect and confusing punctuation? Nope. I’m telling you this because some of the writers in that volume that I talked to said they never look at copyedits. These are traditionally published writers. Color me horrified.
I’ve had copyedits from traditional publishers that are much worse than this one, including one young copyeditor who rewrote every sentence of my 100,000 word novel. I’m not the only writer this has happened to. A traditionally published friend of mine just dealt with the same thing last year on one of his novels.
Back in the 1980s, when I was visiting Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, Kate came out of the kitchen as angry as I had ever seen her. She had written a mystery set in a courtroom, and the copyeditor had written every single line of dialogue into grammatical English. Kate was repairing the entire manuscript. This was in the days before track changes, so everything was being done with different color pencil and notes paperclipped to the pages.
On my delightful document, someone had shut off the approve/reject track changes, so I had to go through and write big all-caps comments, hoping my wishes will be noticed.
I wasn’t kidding when I told the editor at Random Penguin that I used to train copyeditors. I still train them sometimes, although less often now. When I had published my novels traditionally, every single company I worked for used my manuscripts as a litmus test for their copyeditors.
My manuscripts were exceptionally clean. The editors would tell me (one or two novels in) that they were sending my manuscript to a new copyeditor, with a recommendation for a light copyedit. If the manuscript came back with hundreds of changes in the first chapter, that copyeditor never worked again.
The copyedit was sometimes tossed away, and we would let the proofreader catch the typos. It was easier than doing repair.
Nowadays, indie writers hire their own copyeditors. And worry that the copyeditor knows more about details of grammar than the indie writers do. Chances are the copyeditor does know more about the details of grammar than the writer does. Chances are the copyeditor even knows the parts of speech.
I had a rather horrifying discussion last week with one of the grammar goddesses at WMG as she explained how many years she spent diagramming sentences. I had one year of sentence diagramming in the seventh grade from Birdlegs Anderson (yeah, seventh graders are cruel), and I never wanted to do anything like that again. Ever. It was one of the worst experiences of my schooling. (It doesn’t help that I’m dyslexic—which they didn’t diagnose back then—and spatial relations are no more my friend than spelling is.)
Our grammar goddess, however, loves diagramming sentences. More power to her. I’m so glad. Because she does know how to use it to advantage. She also knows when and how to leave a writer’s voice alone.
When I teach writers, I teach them how to use punctuation and paragraphing to great advantage. I teach them to use sentence fragments and repeated words. I teach them to trust their storytelling instincts.
The best way to learn how to tell a story properly is to read for enjoyment. NOT critically. If you read for enjoyment, you’re getting the same effect that the readers are. When you’re done with that story or novel, figure out if you enjoyed the story. If you liked the voice, or the story startled you somewhere, go back and figure out why.
If the copyeditor had read through the manuscript first for enjoyment, they might have figured out that I meant to do 99% of what I did in that manuscript. (The copyeditor found two actual errors in the 500 changes they made to an 8,000 word story. Those numbers are actual numbers. I just checked.)
Copyeditors, necessary as they are, are not the person who decides how a manuscript should read. The writer is.
If you hire a copyeditor who substantially changes your voice, toss that copyedit, and hire someone else. Never hire that copyeditor again. You’re not compatible.
Yes, that means you’ll spend more money. Cue the violins. You do need copyeditors to find the smaller errors. I would love to have one on this blog today, because I’m trying to use the correct modern usage of “copyeditor.” Somewhere along the way, the word “copyeditor” became a compound noun. When I started, it was two words. “Copy editor.” I get paranoid when I write about copyediting, because the very words have changed.
Copyediting is a dynamic profession, filled with changes. In my lifetime, the shorthand for microphone went from “mike” (spelled like it sounds) to “mic.” “Mic” is logical on the page, but not verbally. It looks like “mick” to me, not “mike.”
A good copyeditor knows all of that. They will correct for errors like that while leaving the language alone. (My use of “they” in that sentence became accepted practice just in the last few months, by the way.)
You need a good copyeditor to clean up the random errors that kick readers out of your book. Make sure you test a copyeditor before you hire them, by having them test edit a few pages of your manuscript. Copyeditors are not created equal, and a good copyeditor for me might be a terrible one for you.
As I went online to make sure I found the right version of the word “copyeditor,” I discovered a website that sells line editing and copyediting services. The site has a good definition of the differences between line editing and copyediting, and I was about to link to it, until I read the examples of what these people do.
Before I continue, though, let me explain the differences between a copyeditor and a line editor. (I discussed all of this in more depth in a post from three years ago called “Hiring Editors.”)
A copyeditor’s job is all about consistency. Consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization. A good copyeditor also puts everything in house style. (Some publishers capitalize after a colon; others do not.) A copyeditor flags tiny nits—such as if a character’s eye color changes between the mention on page five and the mention on page one hundred.
A good copyeditor also looks up factual information to make sure that the writer gets names right or facts right. This is particularly important in nonfiction, but also has a place in fiction.
For example, I live in Lincoln City, Oregon. Not Lincoln, Oregon, or the City of Lincoln, Oregon. In fact, the people who work in city government here work for (wait for it) The City of Lincoln City. It’s up to a copyeditor to make sure that I am not being redundant when I refer to The City of Lincoln City in that last sentence. I am being accurate (as well as redundant).
Good copyeditors do all of that, while understanding small things. No casual visitor to my little town will call it The City of Lincoln City. That visitor will call it Lincoln City or, if that person is not paying attention, Lincoln. A good copyeditor will not change all mentions to the “correct” mention, but will leave the “incorrect” mentions where the writer intends them to be.
A good line editor edits for clarity. That’s all. The line editor should read the manuscript first, flagging places where she’s confused as to what really happened, but not digging in. The line editor, like every other editor, should read for enjoyment before tackling the prose. Once she goes back, she knows the intent of the manuscript.
Sometimes a writer intends to confuse the reader. There’s a scene in Silence of the Lambs where Thomas Harris’s prose is deliberately muddy. He’s hiding a detail in plain sight, but not cheating. I caught it on the first read, but I’m a line editor. I wondered how that “mistake” got through. Then I made it to the end of the chapter and realized that he meant to use imprecise language so we wouldn’t catch what he was doing.
A bad line editor would have fixed that. (And, I’ll bet, one tried, only to have Harris stet the correction.)
If a paragraph is unclear, a line editor will suggest revisions for clarity. Sometimes the writer might hate those revisions. Doing it the line editor’s way doesn’t matter, as long as the clarity issue gets addressed.
Line editing is a particular skill, and very few people possess it. The skill is this: the line editor must maintain the integrity of the voice while suggesting changes. Editing out the voice is the worst solution, and every writer should reject those changes.
I generally advise indie writers to skip the line editing, because so few line editors do it well. (The same goes for content or developmental editors. See that post I listed above.)
It is better to have no line editing at all than to accept a bad line edit.
Let me use just one of the horrible examples from that website which offers line editing and copy editing services. I am not going to link to them because I don’t want any of you to hire them. Ever. Nor am I going to name them for that reason.
Here’s the line editing example they posted:
The writer’s original text
She reluctantly handed over her purse, and nervously waited to have it placed back in to her hands. She felt a rush of relief as the Security Guard finished his search after 30 seconds and handed it back to her.
The line edit from this company
She was reluctant to hand over her purse, and felt a rush of relief as the Security Guard finished his search and placed it back in to her hands 30 seconds later.
Note: They did not fix the nits because they left that for their copyedit example.
Frankly, any line editor that left the obvious mistakes—such as the capitals on “security guard”—isn’t worth her salt.
I’d fire that line editor for failing to fix the small mistakes.
However, that’s not the biggest failing of this line edit. The biggest failing is that the line editor harmed voice and characterization in her quest to make the passage read “more fluidly.”
The character nervously waited. That’s characterization, and it’s important. The characterization also takes time to read, just like nervously waiting takes time.
The line editor did not catch the unclear antecedent. “It” in the second sentence of the author’s original text refers to the search, not to the purse. The line editor’s revision left that error in place.
The unclear antecedent is the only mistake I would have flagged if I were line editing. I would have suggested repeating the words “the purse” even though they were used in the previous sentence. Clarity, clarity, clarity. That’s the important thing, not “fluidity.”
What you see in this short line edit is how “serious writer voice” develops. I talked about “serious writer voice” in a recent post. Essentially, serious writer voice unifies the tone of every story written and gets rid of the author’s individual voice. A lot of stories I read this past year, while good, were in “serious writer voice.”
If you didn’t believe me about serious writer voice, then maybe you’ll believe The Atlantic. In an article entitled “How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel?”, Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper used data to show that an MFA leaches the voice from its graduates, making their work sound like everyone else’s.
So and Piper didn’t just eyeball this stuff and make a judgment.
We began by looking at writers’ diction: whether the words used by MFA writers are noticeably different than those of their non-MFA counterparts. Using a process known as machine learning, we first taught a computer to recognize the words that are unique to each of our groups and then asked it to guess whether a novel (that it hasn’t seen before) was written by someone with an MFA. When we did this, the computer was successful only about 67 percent of the time at guessing correctly. You don’t need a degree in statistics to know this isn’t very good—you can be right 50 percent of the time just by accident.
The article’s dry prose includes some shocking turns of phrase: “Erasure of voice,” “lack of diversity” and “lack of distinction.”
Toward the end, the authors state their conclusion:
When we look at the data, the MFA seems to be helping people sound like everyone else.
Just like that line edit, above.
Just like the copyedit I received last month.
I called last month’s copyedit “the copyedit from heck” because I’ve had copyedits from hell that have cost me weeks of my time to correct. This one only cost me a few hours.
It also gave me this blog post, which, I hope, will save you indie writers money and time. Believe in yourself. Believe in your voice. Believe in your work.
Yep, sometimes you must defend three colons against three commas. Sometimes you pay for something (like a copyedit) and throw it away.
If I could have, I would have sent that manuscript back to the publisher with all changes rejected. I couldn’t do that. (Clearly they’ve had this problem before.) So I complained. Politely.
In the past—before the ebook revolution—I would have had to suck it up and pray that the restoration I had done would survive all the editing changes at Random Penguin. These days, I know that I will be able to reprint the correct version in the future, even if the survivors of the bloodletting screw up my little tale of grief, magic, and heartbreak.
Will I continue to send my short stories to traditional markets? Of course. The benefits, in exposure, advertising, and sheer fun, are marvelous.
But I no longer sell my novels to the big traditional publishers, because the copyedit problem I mention here is just one of a thousand. Right now, a whole bunch of writers are being informed that their contracts are being canceled. Others probably have the copyeditor from hell and are afraid to speak up. Still others have lost their editor and champion to the layoffs.
I am glad to be away from those problems, and happy to be able to hire my own copyeditors, people who respect a writer’s work and voice, rather than trying to change it into some rule-bound “serious writer voice.”
Not that anyone has ever managed to change me or my voice.
I’m too stubborn for that.
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“Business Musings: The Copyedit from Heck,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/bradcalkins.