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. Comes out of Latin, which doesn’t HAVE the two-word verb and thus there’s no way to split an infinitive. Scholars who admired Latin as the Ultimate Language imposed the rule on English.

    That said, sometimes it’s idiomatic to split the infinitive, and other times it makes you sound like a William Shatner record. You really have to fly by the seat of your knickers on that one. *grin*

  2. Yeah, I know. That’s my problem with the rule that they should never be split: it’s completely unnatural to English.

  3. I noticed, “every single author has their own particular style” and thought, “Ah, she likes ‘their’ as the generic singular posessive.” And then came to “One author may decide not to use a serial comma and have his sentences be perfectly readable,” and wondered if you deliberately mix the choices in your own writing. Which made me wonder if you’ve written anything about pronouns. I followed sartorias’s link and like what I’ve read so far. (Though I’m still weighing “, and”. I confess, that comma feels to me like the grammatical equivalent of “for a moment,” which can in every case I know be deleted without affecting the sense of the sentence.)

  4. Hi, Will. I haven’t written anything on pronouns, but I’ll add it to my list of things people might be interested in hearing about.

    I do sometimes deliberately mix pronouns in my own writing, using “her” in some places and “his” in others (though I wasn’t aware I had done so in this post, which actually fascinates me and adds one more reason why everyone benefits from having someone objective looking at their writing :-)). In general, though, I prefer to use “their” as a generic singular possessive in my own writing–it matches common usage. I definitely will not “correct” the usage of it in a manuscript, either.

    When “and” is used to mean “then,” I think you’re right that the comma can often be deleted without altering the author’s meaning (though I do believe in such cases that the comma often results in more immediate clarity). However, such preferences also affect an author’s style and voice, so I prefer to leave them as the author has them.

    Thank you for the interesting comment. :-)

  5. Oh, I definitely think authors should be indulged in their stylistic quirks, and the kindest copyeditors make those quirks consistent. Commas, like paragraphing, are an element of style, and style shouldn’t be stripped to the bone.

    The singular “their’ is hard for me (grammar was fascistic in the US in the ’60s), but I keep telling myself that if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, Austen, and the translators of the King James Bible, I should happily give in. Especially since I don’t like any of the alternatives much, and some expressions don’t work well when made plural.

    Enough on that! I look forward to a post on pronouns someday.

  6. There are indeed many levels of copywriting and no one can be expected to do the perfect job unless they are able to get into the mind of the author. But many copyeditors remain at the technical level — sentence by sentence editing without payiong attention to the paragraph and the rhetorical flow from sentence to sentence.

    But are there any software packages that can be useful to copyeditors — say, perhaps, one that amply takes care of the the grammar and spelling and leaves the the copyeditor to concentrate on the fine art of copywriting — that is transitions between sentences and between, rhetoric, coherence, etc. Too many copyeditors get caught picking up the stones on a trail and never get to see where things are going.

    CJ Caes

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