Friday, September 25, 2009

Copy Edits

I'm reposting from another blog. I thought this was hilarious and oh so true. I've heard it all and thought it.

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.

For more informative posts on editing and point of view and a look at the author's book visit:

1 comment:

Sharon Ball said...

Rhonda, this is a great post. I haven't had to tackle this slippery slope, but I've heard many authors air their frustration. I've come to the conclusion that it's important to learn the rules, understand the rules, so that I'll know when to break the rules.