Monday, June 22, 2009

Authors v. C.E.s

A few days ago, a well-known author ranted on her blog about a recent round of copy edits. I don't draw your attention to this post because there's anything unusual in its content. There is not. In fact, it's commonness (is that a word?) was more or less what made it interesting. I've had to mediate a few rounds between authors and copy editors, and there is one predominant pattern in these arguments. The authors talk about voice, and the copy editors cite rules. If you read the comments on La Jenny's blog, you'll see what I mean. It's just more of the same, and almost any of those comments has had its mirror in my inbox at one time or another.

Based on my experiences (and not on Jenny's post or comments), here are some of the hallmarks of an author-versus-copy-editor battle.

"I Am Freaking Out!"

The author gets emotional. I may be able to understand and even empathize, but I probably can't get anywhere productive until we get past the yelling part. Just remember, all that venting might feel great and help you cope, but it probably won't bring us closer to the solution. Yell if you need to, but then cool it and work with me.

"But It's My Voice!"

The author talks a lot about her voice. Frequently, she can't articulate a reason for doing it her way except that she thinks it's her voice.

I never share these comments with the copy editor (or editor, on those rare occasions when I must mediate a disagreement between editor and author) because that would be a great disservice to the authors. There are two reasons for this. First, the author might not understand her own voice. This is both common and understandable. It's hard to get sufficient distance from your own work to analyze your voice.

Or, second, the author is in danger of branding herself as someone who is trying to build her voice on bad grammar and bad style. (Handy tip: You don't want to do that.) Part of my job is making our authors look like the brilliant, colorful butterflies they are. Sometimes this means listening, withholding judgment, and preserving confidence -- and when an author just doesn't understand a rule, I would rather educate her than expose her.

"That's Not a Rule!"

The author doesn't understand the rule that led to the change. This doesn't count against the author until after the rule has been explained. By that I mean that nobody understands everything perfectly. I don't expect to know everything, and I don't expect the people around me to know everything. But I do expect a certain openness to learning.

Many years ago, long before my days with Red Sage, I was freelance editing a manuscript for a very new author. Her manuscript was loaded with laughable dangling modifiers. ("Relaxing on the patio, the ice cream tasted delicious.") I wrote her a detailed explanation of what a dangling modifier is and how to avoid writing them. She sent me back a one-line email: "That's not a rule."

Well, yes, actually, it is a rule in every grammar system I know. I could forgive her for not knowing it in the first place, but her refusal to learn meant that I never took another editing project from her. All of which is to say, when you're getting ready to do nine rounds over what you see as an objectionable edit, remember that you might not understand the rule. And if someone takes the time to educate you, do them the courtesy of trying to learn something.

Now that we've seen some of what happens on the author's side of this battle, let's look at the copy editors. Oh, yeah, we're going there.

"But This Expert Says...."

Every copy editor worth her paycheck can cite house style guides, multiple grammar books, dictionaries, AP/APA/MLA/Chicago, and so on. They might know things you've never dreamed of, such as who Richard Lanham is, and if they're also content editors, they might also have opinions on how and when to apply Lanham's theories. (This is why it's dangerous to join a table full of editors at a cocktail party. You will have to listen to this sort of thing. And then you will cry. Though those might be tears of boredom rather than frustration.)

All of this education means that they've been thoroughly trained in competing and contradictory philosophies of style, usage, and grammar. And if they're left to choose their own solutions, they might just choose one you don't want. The most common problem I see in fiction editing -- and this is more or less what La Jenny was complaining about on her blog -- is a copy editor scorning generative grammar principles in favor of more formal classical grammar. (Fictive grammar generally draws from both schools.) (Also -- and this might just be my particular bias, but it's formed from experience -- it seems that the more educated an editor is, the more scornful she is of generative grammar.)

"But The Style Guide Says...."

The thing about copy editors is that, despite this incredible wealth of information at their disposal, they're really not paid to exercise editorial judgment. They're paid to apply a chosen system of rules to the material at hand. The house supplies the rules, and the copy editor follows them. This is what we expect them to do, and most of them do it brilliantly.

Knowing when not to apply a particular rule is a bit of an art, and it's one best left to other hands. So as long as the CE is following the rules she's supposed to follow, she's on safe ground, even if her result might sound funny. So cut her some slack if she turns in an odd change.

"But The Style Guide Is Wrong!"

Just as I've had authors explode over changes to their manuscripts, I've seen editors explode over changes to the style guide. Editors and copy editors alike become deeply wedded to certain principles -- and if they are also writers? Look out! You know how we sometimes joke about The Great Semicolon Debate of '08? That actually happened. And it's still happening to this day. Just last week I got an email from someone in-house about the damned semicolons, may they all burn in hell. And then got another one from the person on the other side of the argument. Never ends, I swear.

Some rules of grammar are constant from one system to another. Adjectives modify nouns, and progressive tenses signal ongoing action, and periods come at the ends of declarative sentences. Those sorts of things will never change.

Then there are matters of style and usage, which can vary somewhat. It's these variables that can cause the most squabbling on my side of the desk. Of course, most of us on this side of the desk are just twisted enough to think that kind of squabbling is super fun.

So what happens, really, when a disagreement forms over copy edits? I have to mediate between a copy editor with incredible knowledge (but not always the judgment we want to see) and an author who is in a panic (sometimes for good reason, even though she might not be able to articulate the reason). The end result is that both sides claim to be grateful for the resolution while secretly sticking pins into their Theresa dolls. And then I pour myself a stiff drink. There's your HEA!


ps. Jenny, I adore your books and your charming self. This post is not about you. It was just inspired by you.


Edittorrent said...

I suppose it's asking too much to want to be THANKED for fixing things. :)

BTW, another reason I appreciate critique groups is that-- as Katherine just showed-- there's nothing like a lot of critiquing to make authors sympathetic to editors!


Sylvia said...

I usually had very positive interactions with editors and I think anyone who has worked well with an editor IS thankful. Not just correcting errors but improving my prose, lifting a sentence to heights that I hadn't reached.

But, to be honest, I've also worked with people who have made incredible changes which broke the entire concept. Thinking about it, this has always been magazine editors. Hmm.

I have to admit: we have blow-up, shouting, neighbo(u)rs-calling-the-cops arguments about grammar rules in this household, complete with flung dictionaries at dawn (Merriam-Webster vs Chambers). I think a lot of writers have strong feelings about words so it makes them the worst possible person to work with an editor (OI, hands off my commas!).

Good editors (and reasonable authors) don't really inspire the most interesting blog posts, though.

green_knight said...

This copy editor read the post and shook her head, because many of the copy editor's changes could be justified.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is 'pick the hills you're gonna die on' - if you *do* want to fight with your editor/copy editor, choose carefully what is worth making a fuss over. Choosing a word that will be unclear to my readers would't be on my list, however much I might dislike the alternative. Syntax and punctuation... I hope that when the time comes I'll have the serenity to consider the corrections rather than reaching for the 'stet' stamp automatically, and that if there is a problem with the sentence as it stands, I shall find another, even better way of saying it.

Having been on the other end of the red pencil (well, Word's Track Changes feature) changes your outlook. Copy editors really *do* sit on their hands chanting 'it's not my book, it's not my book' - and we sometimes get things wrong, but on the whole, every copy editor I know is trying to make the book more accessible to its readers.

CatherineBerlin said...

As an English teacher, I get: "But my teacher LAST year said" which of course I love to hear.

I simply inform them that every year of their education they will have a different English teacher, and we'll all have our grammar and punctuation issues that we stress. The sooner they figure out what THAT teacher wants, the better.

Hopefully they LISTEN to me and we don't argue to the death over a comma. Cuz I will.

Edittorrent said...

I worked at a newspaper (small) once where the editor would make my story fit the space by cutting paragraphs at the end. I didn't have a lot of ego involved (mostly I was supposed to re-write press releases), but I did feel sorry for the readers, who would lose kind of important information, like when that event was being held.

I ended up learning to write almost unreadably detailed first paragraphs!

Julie Harrington said...

I always feel weird when I read stuff about copy edits and revisions because so far? I haven't really cared. Don't like the semicolon? Go ahead. Change it. Think that word is ambiguous and needs something more concrete? Okie-dokie. Think the sentence is too long and needs to be divided into two? Hmmmmkay, I think we can manage that. Too many adjectives? Probably. Let's lop off a few or try to find one that does the job or two or more of them.

Maybe it's my Aquarian nature, I don't know, but I don't take that too badly. Now, tell me something doesn't work at all, is boring, or the "huge" looming issues on writing and I'll have a fit... mostly because I'm annoyed with myself and knew it deep, deep down anyway. GRRRRRR. Nothing worse than having someone confirm you blow chunks in a chapter. :( And I might storm around my house kicking paperbacks out of my way, but in the end, I sit back down and fix it.

I'm not saying that, as a writer, getting critiqued doesn't ever sting (or make you wonder why you didn't see that problem when you were revising it) or that I don't sometimes think that changing something to a suggested way ruins what I was going for. But at the back of my mind, I'm thinking, wait, if they didn't get it.... And I take another look.

I'm not making this comment based on Jenny C's blog (because I like her books too), but on the subject of authors fighting editing... we've all heard the stories and I've always wanted to know if it was true... Do some writers, once they reach a certain level of notability/notariaty, demand they not be edited anymore?

Part of me thinks wow, that would be nice, and then the other part of me screams in horror because I so need an editor. I'd be totally petrified of what incorrect thing would slip out. Eek!

But I swear, that advice I got of "Don't ever get married to anything you write"? Best EVER.


Edittorrent said...

I meant Kathleen. :)

Edittorrent said...

>Do some writers, once they reach a certain level of notability/notariaty, demand they not be edited anymore?>>

I was wondering what happened to John Grisham, actually. :)

Leona said...

I haven't had to be professionally edited, but, my husband made the pages bleed when he did my editing (One of many who did) I didn't always change every word (some of his changes were definitely personal preference) but he found some aweful mistakes I would have hated for an editor, much less a reader, to see! I was and am nothing but grateful. Even as I teased him about making the pages bleed.

I was more groaning at myself because after I saw them I couldn't believe I missed them in the first place!! (Heard you there jewel tone:)

I appreciate what I've learned from your line item edits and it continues to improve my writing skills! Hopefully that'll be my attitude when mine comes up. LOL

I can't wait to have this problem :)


Liane Gentry Skye said...

Reading my copy edits, I jabbed another pin into my Theresa doll. :)

I'd like to add that putting copy edits aside for 24 hours, then re-reading them after the initial panic attack subsides is a darn good policy.

(Still chuckling over the Theresa doll..what an image!)

Edittorrent said...

Darling Liane, in your case it may be more like a Theresa pincushion. But hey, acupuncture is a good thing, right? ;)

JT, you might be surprised at how many authors share your attitude (or do a damned good job of faking it). It's rare that I have to mediate a dispute over copy edits.


Julie Harrington said...

[>Do some writers, once they reach a certain level of notability/notariaty, demand they not be edited anymore?>>

I was wondering what happened to John Grisham, actually. :)

Right after I hit the post button I wanted to take it back and edit it because I realized all the examples I could come up with for authors weren't in the romance genre at all. They were all broaded mass market fiction.

Oh, and Leona, I won't make all the suggested changes either. Like you, some of them I see as just personal preference. But if I'm getting a crit from, say, 5 people and 3 or 4 of them come back with the same comment on something? I'm definitely taking a second close look at it.


green_knight said...

my default reaction to edits is 'the reader thinks there's a problem with this - can I see the problem, and do I agree with the proposed solution?

Anonymous said...

I just did a round as a copyeditor, though just for a newsletter. Most of what I fixed were just plain sloppiness (like the writer who didn't notice the red line under words that were spelled wrong). It's a lot of work! From my perspective after seeing that, I'd like to see authors try a little harder before sending it out. It's not that hard to run the spell check and proofread carefully.

But I did a better job on this issue of the newsletter because I'd seen a reference to stylesheets on a message board. After a bit of research (though I'm still having trouble finding resources that do more than a passing reference), I used it for the newsletter, which helped a lot as a quick reference. But I've also seen how it would help me on my urban fantasy novel. I have more than 20 characters, and sometimes I have trouble remembering their names. The generally suggested options in how-to books (i.e., character worksheets) were overkill for what I was trying to keep track of. The stylesheet has been a perfect answer for that, but I'm still trying to find out more information to help me use it to my benefit. Maybe a post on stylesheets and possibly some examples? (I can find a couple of links if need be).


L.M. Adams

Maree Anderson said...

I read through the in-house style guide and thought I'd picked up most things. Then I learned just how much I hadn't picked up from my copy edits!

I did query one thing and from it, learned that the contest judges who'd convinced me to leave out that particular word didn't know what they were talking about. So, having trained myself not to write the word, I had to train myself to write it back in!

In a nutshell, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from professionals who were far more knowledgeable than me!

Yes, the rhythm and cadence of my sentences can often seem crucial at the time of writing, but I'd rather it not be to the detriment of my reader's comprehension.

So you'll get no pin-sticking from me! At least, not till I'm so damned famous I don't need to worry about copy-edits anymore. Yeah. Riiiiight ;-)

Anonymous said...

I got a chuckle out of your post, especially regarding semicolons. Thanks for the informative and funny post.

In journalism, we've stopped the great semicolon debate. We discourage them. It's kind of like grammar racism and the little things are just gerrymandered out.

I've been in journalism for almost 20 years. Editors and copyeditors save me time and time again. For every editor and copy editor I've had they have each had their own pet peeves and each publication has its own style. They also get to deal with my own quirks. (Drop a not lately? Searching for a transition and find "That's because"? That would be me.)

It's silly to go toe-to-toe because your editor prefers was also and also was is correct or any other argument. I go toe-to-toe over things that matter: is it accurate, does the story flow, and is the message of the story coming across. Do forgive any errors. I didn’t run this past an editor.

green_knight said...


A novel style sheet would contain the names of characters and everything you say about them (taller than x, blond hair, habit of snapping his fingers when nervous) so you can find inconsistencies. Make a reading pass _just_ for this purpose and add religiously.

The same with places and worldbuilding details. The street food on page thirteen may be a throwaway detail, but if your character goes hungry on page 435 because she doesn't have time for a sit-down meal, you need to explain the absence of vendors.

Also in the stylesheet go house style decisions such as whether to write out numbers, cap, or italicise certain words; whether the author makes unusual choices (such as using both 'grey' and 'gray' in a novel written in AmE), whether 'alright' is allowed or spawn of the devil, and similar decisions. It's all about consistency, and particularly when you're writing for yourself, there are no right or wrong answers. On the other hand, writing down ideosynchrasies such as use of sentence fragments, dialect, or certain word choices ('writer uses insure as a synonym for ensure') can help to make you question whether your choice really was wise, or whether you've overused a certain syntax, grammatical feature, or piece of vocabulary.

I have a character say 'obnoxioucicity?' at one point and collapse in laughter before settling on 'obnoxiousness' - and I'd whip the 'stet' stamp out faster than you can correct it, so it would be best to add _that_ to the style sheet, for instance.