I need some further information on my current project before I’m able to continue with the copyedit, so I actually have time to blog. :-)
Something that’s been on my mind lately is the issue of variant spellings, and how copyeditors decide which ones to allow.
First, I think a lot of people believe that all spellings given in the dictionary are equally acceptable, and that’s not really true. In order to decide whether a particular variant is favored, the first thing an author should do is look to see whether it’s joined to the main entry by or or by also. Those joined by or are considered to be equal variants, even if out of alphabetical order, in which case the first spelling is slightly more common than the second.
However, a lot of variants joined by or are favored in British or Candian English rather than American, and most American publishers want copyeditors to use American spelling. Thus, the copyeditor is going to be required to change theatre to theater, despite the fact that the dictionary considers them equal variants. The publisher may want levelled changed to leveled for the same reason.
So not even all the primary variants are really considered equal in any given situation, and then you come to the secondary variants–those joined by also. Secondary variants occur appreciably less often in the language than the primaries do. Although the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the standard in the industry) notes that “secondary variants belong to standard usage and may be used according to personal inclination,” editors often feel otherwise. Some publishers require that copyeditors correct all secondary variants.
Sometimes, though, I feel an author is using a secondary variant for a very valid and particular reason, and I’ll note that variant on the style sheet as the preferred choice. For instance, if an author has a strongly Christian character uttering the word geez, I’m likely to allow that spelling over jeez as a way of further distancing the character from the original Jesus expression, which the character might never even consider saying.
So the whole issue of variants is a little more complex than it would seem at first glance, and copyeditors who change your spelling are quite likely following the publisher’s guidelines when they do so. Try not to get annoyed at them for it. :-) If you know that you intend a particular variant for some purpose, let your editor know; they’ll pass that information along to the copyeditor.
I'm a freelance copyeditor specializing in fantasy and science fiction. SF/F novels I have copyedited have been finalists for (and have sometimes won) the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Endeavour, Golden Spur, John W. Campbell Memorial, Quill, Locus, Philip K. Dick, British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. In 2007 I became the first and only copyeditor ever short-listed for a World Fantasy Award.