Zen and the Art of Copyediting

Every once in a while, I get a request from a production editor that makes me realize how very…Zen, for lack of a better word…my approach to copyediting novels is. I’ve been specializing in fantasy and science fiction for eleven years now–that’s a long time for a freelancer to survive–and I’ve worked hard to build what I’m told is an excellent reputation in the genre. When I approach a novel, my first thought is not how to make it conform to the rules set forth by The Chicago Manual of Style or Words into Type. My first thought is more often, What rules need to be broken in order to make this book as accessible to the reader as possible?

Making a science fiction or fantasy novel accessible–trying to see through the author’s eyes to what he or she wants to accomplish–frequently means not following the rules. Take titles of nobility, for instance. In regular fiction, you have kings and queens and presidents–there’s nothing complex about it, and no reason to have those terms capitalized when they appear all by themselves. In fantasy, however, you frequently have much more unusual titles that might not be clear to the reader as such if the rules are followed. In Charlie Finlay‘s book The Prodigal Troll, for instance, the head of the trolls is called the First. Had I elected to “correctly” lowercase that term when it occurred alone, I would have damaged the readability of the text; I chose to leave his titles capitalized instead. It made sense.

Another item I run into often is the “misuse” of a comma with a compound predicate–two verbs that have the same subject. Every good copyeditor knows that you shouldn’t use a comma in these instances: “He ran toward the gate as it was closing and tossed the artifact through.” However, in fiction, many authors use and in these constructions to mean then–the action is not simultaneous. It’s a perfectly reasonable use of and (I hope like hell that there aren’t any copyeditors out there who would change these to then all the time, though I fear there are), and in those instances, the comma often shows the author’s intent more clearly: “He ran into the woods, and buried himself beneath the leaf litter.” Wil McCarthy, for instance, uses this construction fairly often, and I leave the commas in for the good of the text. (And as a note, the latest edition of CMS allows the use of the comma in these instances to indicate pauses; I was very amused when the last edition came out that several usages I’d been following according to my own rules suddenly became “acceptable” overnight.)

One of the rules I was requested to follow this week deals with the italicization of “foreign” terms in a novel. In a non-genre novel, this is usually a pretty straightforward occurrence: the story is in English, and if you have a French or Spanish word within the text that isn’t in Web11 (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition–the standard for copyediting), you italicize it. In fantasy and science fiction, however (I notice a lot of howevers in my theory of copyediting), the reader is often participating in the illusion that the book is actually written in another language–alien or Elvish or Ancient Greek–because that’s what the character would actually be speaking. In such novels, when a “native” word is interspersed with the English narrative, I do not italicize it if the author hasn’t. Doing so, in my opinion, draws the reader out of that illusion to some small extent, notes that it is a foreign term when in reality it isn’t supposed to be; it floats the reader up from that immersion in the world.

It’s tricky being a copyeditor in instances like this–if you don’t do what you’re asked you won’t be hired again, but you don’t want to do something that you disagree with. When this happens to me, I explain my reasoning to the production editor. If the production editor won’t budge, I often have little choice but to alter the text anyway–I can talk to the author or editor if I feel strongly about the issue, if I know them, but that won’t endear me to the production editor, who is the one giving me the work. It has happened once in my career that I began refusing all work from a particular production editor because I disliked what they were asking me to do (edit to strict CMS) and feared damaging my reputation by continuing to work for the person. That was years ago, though. These days, when almost all my work comes from author or editor requests anyway, I would probably take my concerns up the ladder.

Every single book is different, and every single author has their own particular style. One author may decide not to use a serial comma and have his sentences be perfectly readable, while another author’s style renders the lack awkward. The interesting thing about the approach I’ve developed over the years, though, is that it is often in accord with what the authors themselves have done. They know what they want to accomplish with their books, even if that knowledge is subconscious.

Many production editors are hesitant to use a copyeditor that the author has requested: the general perception in the field is that the author probably only likes the copyeditor because the copyeditor doesn’t change anything. In my case, for a lot of small things, I do go with the author’s preference on a book, because I often agree with it, feel that it makes the most sense for that particular novel, can see through the author’s eyes. I know for my own ego, though, that my authors definitely aren’t favoring me because I do little. I just don’t give a “mechanical” copyedit, because novels are not machines. The things I really focus on–plot holes, inconsistencies, factual errors, passages that are difficult to understand or that pull the reader away from immersion–are things that the authors and editors truly appreciate.

The readers? They appreciate my work, too, though they’ll never know it. It’s an odd job to be invisible. :-)

57 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Copyediting”

  1. Another item I run into often is the “misuse” of a comma with a compound predicate

    –>Actually, I think the inclusion of the comma was once upon a time encouraged, and only became verboten with the Great Comma Denunciation of the 1960s/1970s (when serial commas were also temporarily done in). I am thrilled they are “acceptable” again (not that unacceptability ever stopped me), for precisely the same reasons you are.

    One of the rules I was requested to follow this week deals with the italicization of “foreign” terms in a novel.

    –>This one I’m less in agreement with you. I follow the rule of italicizing the “alien” word on the first occurrence, but thereafter it is roman. I think of that first time as a signal to the read that yes, this is a new word and not a typo.

    And oh yeah, I am all about the capitalization. Ah, the fun of fantasy novels.

  2. I’m pretty much with you on all counts. But I follow the school of “if it fits with the overall tone and style of the novel, and it makes sense, then leave it alone.”

  3. I follow the rule of italicizing the “alien” word on the first occurrence, but thereafter it is roman. I think of that first time as a signal to the read that yes, this is a new word and not a typo.

    –>I seldom follow anything as an unbreakable rule. If the author has italicized the first use, I’ll go with it. If they haven’t, I’ll go with that. If they’ve italicized every use in a novel in which the word is supposed to be in the language spoken, I may query. What I do not like to do is change the way the author has dealt with a particular item if I do not feel that changing it is in the best interests of the book.

  4. Then we’re on the same plane. I don’t like altering an author’s preference for no better reason than to make the sentence adhere strictly to CMS. If I feel it’s truly better for the book to break a rule the author’s followed, I’ll query.

  5. How likely are you to change terms/words in an SF book that weren’t included on a style sheet?

    By that I mean, well, if the device that powers up a vehicle is called a “charge-through”, would you change it to “ignition”?

  6. No, I absolutely would not change that, and I can’t even comprehend a reason for doing so–you’re changing the feel of the book with alterations like that. A copyeditor has no business making such a change, though I suppose the editor might.

    I would put a term like that on the copyediting style sheet so that the proofreader would know to leave it alone (and so that I would remember it’s supposed to be hyphenated when I see it), and that would be the extent of my involvement with it unless it was for some reason unclear or inconsistent, in which case I would query it.

  7. I like you very much.

    The CE of my last book made these sorts of changes. “Charge-through” became “ignition” when referring to a vehicle and “trigger” when referring to a weapon. Many other terms that I had used throughout the first three books of the series were also changed, as were my anglicisms–boot for truck, lift for elevator, etc.

    I blamed the fact that I had not included a style sheet. I had constructed one for past books, but the time crunch caught up with me for that one. I promised myself that all future books will have style sheets, just to make life easier for everyone.

  8. As a fellow copyeditor (a title I claim despite not having been paid for it in many years) and skiffy-fan, I’m thrilled to not only find out that someone has an approach like this but also learn that she is making a freelance living with it. Brava!

    (I was pointed here by , for the record.)

  9. You didn’t need to include a style sheet; you needed a better copyeditor. Those items absolutely should not have been changed unless the editor for some reason requested it.

    Where was the series set, that the CE changed your Anglicisms? I will alter British spelling for an American audience (again, depending on the book–I leave it for China’s because I think it adds to the feel of his books, but generally find American spelling causes American readers to stumble less), but I would have to have a very special reason for altering Anglicisms (like the character and setting are American).

  10. hello from a fellow copyeditor! pointed me here.

    F/SF novels sound like such a headache to c/e–I can’t even imagine trying to figure out all the bent/broken rules, which probably change from book to book and series to series. Yikes.

  11. I hear from production editors that a lot of copyeditors don’t like to take SF/F. That’s fine by me; I love the stuff. :-)

    But, yes, you do need to apply the rules book by book rather than follow a set formula, IMO. I often haven’t decided how best to treat an item on my first pass through and have to mark it on second or subsequent passes.

  12. The series is set mostly in far-future Chicago, with sojourns offworld. My protagonist was born off-world and is of Irish/Indian ancestry.

    To be honest, I chose Anglicisms because they made things on Earth sound different-yet-the-same. There were mentions pf past wars that may have garbled languages and dialects up a bit, but I didn’t mention that explicitly. I haven’t received any complaints from readers so far, and the first two CEs didn’t even mention it. However, if it’s a borderline situation, I will go ahead and add it to the style sheet.

  13. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get started with it? From what I’ve heard, it’s a very difficult area to break into.

  14. This is a situation where I may have queried the terms but wouldn’t change them. Language change is inevitable in the far future. :-) It wouldn’t hurt to add it to the style sheet, though, if you’re worried.

    In general, though, authors really don’t need to prepare a style sheet of their own: the copyeditor should make a new one anyway. It’s a pity that you feel you have to.

    You should request that they not give you the same copyeditor you had the last time, though. If it’s the same publishing company, they’ll have a record of who they used.

  15. I worked four years in-house at Harcourt Brace College Publishers and started freelancing on the side while I was there. As soon as I could, I quit to freelance full-time.

    It is very difficult to get into copyediting without in-house experience, and almost impossible to get into it without excellent references. Even now, with excellent references and a slew of authors who request me for their books, publishing houses are hesitant to hire me if they haven’t worked with me before. I would love to work for HarperCollins, for instance, but have never gotten a reply to my queries to them, even though one of their editors sent my resume down to production personally.

  16. As the copyeditor (the only editor, in fact) of the short fiction and poetry for my webzine, I identify with your Zen editorial mindset. (My copyediting duties are far less challenging than your own, of course.) I seldom request stylistic tweaking; I consider the style of a work the author’s territory, not mine. On the other hand, I tend to accept stories that work for me stylistically, which just leaves ferreting out errors, glaring and subtle, from work before publication. Despite my efforts, I still miss mistakes on occasion – a common problem for one-editor publications.

  17. I appreciate the care in which you apply, and do not apply rules, depending on the context, and what is best for a given text. Would that all copy editors were as knoledgable about the texts they are working on that you seem to be.

  18. No one is perfect; it’s always best to have as many eyes on something as you can. I think it’s very common for editors to have this mindset; it just seems more unusual in copyeditors. In general, I suppose we’re a rather anal lot, and that plays itself out in different ways. :-)

  19. Thanks, Jer. I’ve been doing it long enough that it’s second nature now; it’s almost hard to codify the process. I really think that it stems more than anything, though, from a respect for the work in question.

  20. addendum…

    The readers? They appreciate my work, too, though they’ll never know it. It’s an odd job to be invisible.

    –>When I first started designing books, my boss said this to me: “If anyone notices the design, you failed.”

    Readers notice when the copyediting sucks. Hey, you have a job where “no news” really is “good news”!

  21. I really admire your approach. Much of what you say feels obvious, once you’ve said it.

    One question: What do you see as the difference in responsibilities between a copyeditor and a proofreader?

  22. I still say authors should be allowed to spend their lottery winnings on having you ‘do’ their novels. So there.

  23. You could very easily argue that “sf words” are not foreign words, but are just future ordinary words. Even if they’re from an alien language and adopted into English.

  24. In publishing terms, the copyeditor is the person who looks at the manuscript and suggests changes, and the proofreader is the person who compares the page or galley proof to the manuscript to be sure that it was set correctly. A proofreader shouldn’t have to suggest changes or check facts or correct inconsistencies, though they often do. I stopped taking proofreading years ago because I always ended up doing too much of the copyeditor’s job and lost my rear on wages. (Fiction copyeditors are expected to edit at a rate of about ten manuscript pages per hour, and proofreaders are expected to proof about twelve book pages per hour.)

  25. And I still say they shouldn’t have to. :-) They can always request me from the publisher, since I work for most of the major ones. There’s no reason they should have to spend their own money to hire me.

  26. The readers? They appreciate my work, too, though they’ll never know it.

    That’s so sad, but it’s true.

    I’m currently trying to review a book, but it was just not copyedited very well at all. You can definitely tell that the writer and the editor were good friends and that the editor didn’t have the guts to put his work through the wringer like it needed.

    It’s so sad that when a copyeditor does a good job, they go unnoticed, but when they do a bad job… it’s all I can think about…

  27. Excellent article. I work mainly for electronic publishers doing genre copy-editing, but years and years ago when I was in-house I was instructed to “respect the writer’s style” and so forth. I’ve been lucky to get the copy-editors I wanted the last few years for my own novels.

  28. In general, though, authors really don’t need to prepare a style sheet of their own: the copyeditor should make a new one anyway. It’s a pity that you feel you have to.

    Well, I was told to. The first time, I prepped a list of all characters and the pages on which they were mentioned. I think I added odd words as well, but it’s been about 5 years and I’ve forgotten.

    IIRC, I did this twice. No one prompted me after that, so I didn’t follow up.

    You should request that they not give you the same copyeditor you had the last time, though. If it’s the same publishing company, they’ll have a record of who they used.

    I did ask my editor to please not assign me this CE anymore. Another of her writers did the same, so I know it wasn’t just me.

  29. Well, you can’t necessarily tell that the author and editor were friends. It might have been that the copyeditor marked things and the author stetted them, or it might have been that not a very good copyeditor was used.

    But in general, yes, copyediting is somewhat like housework: no one ever notices it unless you don’t do it.

  30. That’s good–both the way you were taught and the fact that you got the copyeditors you wanted. I think most publishers do a good job of it these days.

  31. Hmm. Well, it’s always been my job to prepare a style sheet, and if I got one from an author (I have twice), I would still prepare one of my own in addition. I use them to make sure that words are treated the same in regard to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization; and they serve as a resource to the proofreader for the same thing.

  32. Your approach is refreshing. Far better than that of the editor who thought compound verbs were like infinitives, never to be split (“I have often shopped there” became “I often have shopped there,” to my dismay), or the editor who with a stroke of her pencil made Annabella Milbanke the daughter of Lady Melbourne, not her niece. (I didn’t discover that until the advance copy reached me.)

    I’ve been a copyeditor and production editor as well as an author, and I can tell equally chilling tales of authors and their reluctance to be edited.

    At least, when you edit SF, you don’t have to contend with authors who refuse to supply essential bibliographic information.

  33. Oh, sorry. I hate the “don’t split infinitives” rule, too, actually: stupidest, most unnatural rule in the English language.

  34. Thank you. I suspected what I’ve been doing was copyediting when it was being called proofreading. You’re helping me confirm this.

  35. It’s a perfectly reasonable use of “and,”

    Query: Didn’t you mean to say It’s a perfectly reasonable use of “, and”? (comma-and vs and-comma)

    Enjoyed the discussion, thanks!

    –Anne (here by way of ‘s mention)

  36. Hi, Anne. :-)

    No, the comma is an artifact of an edit–it was placed there correctly because the following part of the sentence is an independent clause, but then I added in the parenthetical note and no longer need it preceding the parenthesis. Even editors need editors for their own stuff. :-) Thanks.

    I was meaning to open up the article anyway, because any minute someone will point out that I used italics for some words as words and quotation marks for others. I thought I’d fix that before they did. :-)

  37. “He ran into the woods, and buried himself beneath the leaf litter.”

    Man, that comma really bugs the crap out of me!

    Now, if the author had just stuck a pronoun after the “and”, I’d be happy. (And yes, I had to stop and think about whether to put the comma in the previous sentence before or AFTER the closing quotation mark — I’m an editor-geek!)

    Cool insight into the copy-editing process! I’m glad I just edit technical documents, not SF/F books. :)

  38. The comma actually does go inside the quote marks (for American punctuation), even though I agree it looks odd. :-) In British usage, the comma goes outside the quote marks unless it is part of the quotation, which actually makes more sense to me. I still follow American style for American audiences, though.

    When I was fresh out of editing college textbooks, many years ago, those commas looked odd to me, too. But for fiction, I really think it’s important to the style of some authors to let them stay–it reflects a different pace and rhythm. Again with the Zen thing. :-)

  39. What did you mean by eleven years being a long time for a freelancer to survive?

    Also, I’ve read one author who complained that copy editors are poorly paid, so it’s hard to keep a good one. Is that true? (I wonder if I just answered my first question.)

  40. Copyediting can be very much feast or famine, and it can also be difficult working alone every day. Many freelancers only last a few years full-time.

    Most copyediting these days pays between $18-25 an hour.

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