by wjw on November 7, 2008

While I was in Canada, I spent a good many hours wrestling with the copy-edited manuscript of This Is Not a Game.

The relationship between a writer and copy editor is complex. For one thing, it is the job of copy-editors to point out an author’s mistakes, and that is never fun for the author. The majority of the time, the copy editor is right, and the author is left slapping his forehead, muttering “How did I let that sentence get past me?” Which, with repetition (and given the noted insecurity of creative types) can soon turn into, “I’m a wretched hack! I couldn’t write a decent paragraph if you gave me a hundred years! As a writer, I totally suck!”

On other occasions the author is left stomping around in an angry circle, hurling pencils at makeshift dart boards while shrieking, “How dare she????” while angrily writing STET on the copy in very large letters. (Note for those not in the business: copy editors are almost always female. STET is Latin for “let it stand.”)

I suspected that This Is Not a Game really needed a good copy-edit, because it had been through several revisions, and I didn’t know whether I’d successfully patched over all the transitions. (Turns out I had, pretty much.)

The copy-edit was an excellent one. The editor sharpened my prose, edited out redundancy, and suggested changes aimed at improving clarity. The book is far stronger for her having been involved.

But the editor also did what all copy editors do, which is try to make me consistent. I hate that!

Sometimes I capitalize words that I think need emphasis, whether a style sheet calls for that or not. (As TNH wrote in her splendid sf&f style sheet, “A King with a Sword is different from a king with a sword.”) Copy editors always correct this, even when my intent is obvious.

Sometimes, when a character is thinking, I italicize the words. Sometimes I don’t. Generally I italizice interior monologue only when I would italicize the words if spoken aloud. But in any case, I’m inconsistent. And copy-editors are always trying to fix it. Aaagh!

This copy editor was also fond of the word “gotten.” I hate the word “gotten,” and I never use it. “Got” works just fine in all circumstances, thank you. (But I didn’t STET that one, because it was just too much trouble for something I don’t care that deeply about. So TINAG will be full of gottens, which I will be wincing at for years.)

Copy editors are also fond of the Chicago Manual of Style, which has some things in it that are just annoying, because the Chicago Manual is really a guideline for academic publishing and not for fiction. So editors are always trying to make my fiction consistent with, say, Ronald F. Follett’s Agricultural practices and policies for
carbon sequestration in soil,
Lewis Publishers, 2002. (A fine work in its way, I am sure.)

The copy editor was also fond of Webster’s, even for foreign words. Webster’s is not the authority for spelling Javanese words, which are fairly common in the first part of the book. I had to change all that back. I wish she’d used an Indonesian online dictionary.

Also, because we had to be consistent, all foreign words had to be italicized. I wanted to write a little essay explaining that the English word for pentjak silat is, in fact, pentjak silat, the same way that the English word for karate is karate, and that it shouldn’t be italicized, but I didn’t have time, so I just wrote STET all over the place.

And, most horribly of all, the name of one of the major characters was changed in order to make it consistent. (I am becoming consistent in italicizing consistent, aren’t I?) Consistent, in this case, with Webster’s, which is flat wrong.

I have a character who, because he had an Eastern European name, goes by his initials, which are BJ. Webster’s insists that this be rendered as B. J., with a space between the letters. I don’t know who this B. J. person is, but he’s not my character.

And besides, the character himself should decide how his name is spelled.

STET, please. STET STET STET STET STET, all the way to the end of the manuscript.

It has to be said that the copy-edit did an excellent job of improving the book while nevertheless wreaking havoc on the psyche of its author. At times, I felt myself teetering on the brink.

But it is a necessary job, both for author and copy editor. And it was done. And the book is better for it.

(Note: the author uses “copy-edit” with a hyphen, but “copy editor” without. Is this consistent?)
JRS November 7, 2008 at 6:23 am

You have no idea how comforting it is to know that it’s not just me who goes through this. 🙂


Mark J. McGarry November 7, 2008 at 9:52 pm

It’s a good idea for the writer to include a style guide for the copy editor, including a list of character and place names, as well as idiosyncracies. Makes for lower blood pressure all around.

Also, science fiction writers tend to capitalize nouns with Germanic abandon. There are rules for these things.

Margot Otway November 8, 2008 at 3:58 am

So, you need to start writing college physics texts, like the ones I work on, not fiction.

In that case you’d start with a copy editing style sheet specific to the book. And you’d see the copy edited ms chapter by chapter, so you could redirect the copy editor, instead of all at once.

I bet your manuscript would be a riot to work on, too.

Anonymous November 8, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Copyeditors work for consistency because a reader will often stop to wonder why a word is treated or spelled differently. That moment of wondering can kick the reader out of the story.

Sometimes the author’s intent behind the variation is clear, sometimes not.

I would have queried the first occurrence and flagged the rest. Changing all of them causes exactly the situation you encountered — evil authorial thoughts directed at the copyeditor and an overwhelming desire for a “stet” stamp.

Mark Wise

Seneca the Younger November 9, 2008 at 10:49 am

Note: the author uses “copy-edit” with a hyphen, but “copy editor” without. Is this consistent?

Consistent with what? It’s correct, though: copy-edit is a compound forming a single verb, while a copy editor is the editor who edits the copy: “copy” is an adjective.

Foxessa November 10, 2008 at 4:13 am

You had a copy edtior! Hooray.

Far too many novels don’t get them these days.

Lucky you. I mean that most sincerely.

Though, yes, there is also the experience of the copy editor who is worse than no copy editor. I guess we’ve all had both.

Even though we do always include style sheets.

Love, C.

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