Monday, May 21, 2012

The Eternal War: Editors vs. Edited

I have been fortunate in my writing life. I grew up in a school system that was ranked very high academically, and I was blessed with two old (very old) teachers who had actually started out in one-room schoolhouses like Laura Ingalls Wilder. So, okay, I'm dating myself, but those old ladies knew their grammar inside and out and they made sure we did, too. I am appalled by the general state of literacy with regard to the English language in America these days, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.

The upshot of my education and a lifetime of reading is a fundamental grasp of proper grammar and punctuation, etc., which comes out in the fact that in all of the stuff I have had published, the copy edits were minimal: a comma here, a tweak of a sentence there, nothing particularly annoying. I have heard of some writers who defend, practically with loaded shotgun, against any change to their deathless prose. I'm not that way. If you have a good reason for changing it, I'm open.

What I do not accept is changing it to fit some arbitrary notion of the editor's idea of "perfect." Lately there has been a huge brouhaha on the internet over one newbie writer's experience with a totally unprofessional publication and its editor, who rewrote her entire story without telling her and tried to tell her that was what was meant by "editing" in her contract. Oh, puh-lease. Not hardly. But that, too, is another story. My musing was sparked by going through a particular manuscript of mine that I did actually send to a professional editor friend. She wanted to branch out from straight copy editing; I wanted to see if she could give me some insights into a manuscript I like a lot.

The result was enlightening.

Now, granted that the story is a historical fantasy with a very strong voice in a Southern dialect. She took that into account, for the most part, resisting her natural itch to correct everything to be perfect. What she did correct, however, pointed out to me like a two-by-four strategically placed between the eyes the differences between how a writer thinks and how an editor thinks. Or at least, how a copy editor approaches a manuscript.

The copy editor wants perfection in grammar and punctuation. The writer is focused on style. That means the flow of a sentence--how it sounds in the writer's head, and the impact the writer wants to achieve on the page--may be entirely different from how the editor thinks it should flow. This, I noticed, came out rather clearly in how my friend punctuated sentences and how I punctuated them. She wanted commas where I did not and removed them from where I did. I do not say she was wrong (although in some cases I was left scratching my head, as it appeared to violate the actual "rules" of grammar I had learned). What I do say is that her perspective was different than mine.

This, perhaps, is the source of so much infighting between writers and editors. I would defend my changes with spirit where I did choose to ignore her corrections. I accepted probably two-thirds of them without quibbling. She did force me to think about how I used commas, and I discovered from it a bad over-use of certain phrasing that I subsequently corrected. However, in this piece especially, which differs a great deal from past work of mine, I deliberately violated a lot of "rules" to get the tone and flow that I wanted. My character's internal thought process was breathless at times, and that is how the prose is written, ignoring the proper use of commas when describing things like "the old battered hat he wore." While "the old, battered, hat" is proper, it is not what I "hear" when my character is speaking. Likewise, when reading any piece aloud, the placement of commas becomes immediately apparent, especially when they are placed for emphasis to lend weight to a certain phrase. This, I think, is what a copy editor may not take into account when trying to bring a piece into conformance with a particular style manual or the puzzling and variable "rules" of grammar.

Copy editing is a vital part of the publication process. My friend is very, very good at it. I'm glad I had her look at it, as I learned from the process. Not least of the lessons was this illuminating look at the other side of the coin.

I would suggest that any writer troubled by edits they find objectionable take it up with the copy editor in a reasonable, open fashion, presenting their thought process while trying to understand the editor's reasons for making the changes. You, the writer, might be the one in the wrong--or not. It bugs me a lot when an editor knows less about grammar than I do and changes something to a form that is not correct or less clear. That is a fight worth having--diplomatically! And if it is a matter of style, the editor needs to understand and work with you to present the voice of the story in a way that preserves your vision but doesn't leave the reader thinking you're both from the far side of the moon.

Style vs. "proper." Writer vs. editor. It doesn't have to be a war!

I would love to hear your perspectives and experiences. Feel free to comment.

You can discover whether I practice what I preach with regard to writing "rules" in Firedancer and now Windrider, the first two books in my Masters of the Elements series, available now in both print and ebook editions.


Rebecca Stefoff said...

Very interesting post, Sue. Having been both writer and editor in the course of my career, sometimes simultaneously (on different manuscripts, obviously), I've seen this conflict play out in varying degrees of acrimony. Like you, though, I've been generally a noncombatant. My work has been very lightly copyedited. And because most of my published books are nonfiction, issues of voice and characterization haven't come up. I've always had the prerogative to ignore the c/e's changes or suggestions, as long as I considered each one.

It's always a bit disheartening when a manuscript comes back bedecked with queries, line changes, and post-its like an army of querulous little yellow square soldiers (see how I didn't use commas there?). For the most part, I've been grateful to copyeditors (and even more so to fact checkers) for saving me from many grievous or at least infelicitous sins. The key, I think, is to have a clear understanding with your acquisition or development editor before the c/e process begins: I'm the author, I have final say, I will look at every one of the f/c's or c/e's comments and decide whether to adopt them--or not. If you know your own choices won't be overridden willy-nilly, being copyedited can be an actual pleasure as well as, from time to time, a face-saver.

Your post is in some ways the opposite of an all-too-frequent gripe of mine: Where the hell was the copyeditor?? Just recently I read (for review) a novel in which, on the first page, "hoard" was used for "horde," followed soon by "adverse" for "averse" and many other similar mistakes. Call it pettifoggery, but such things throw me right out of a story. I suspect the only copyeditor who worked on that book (which was not self-pubbed) was Mr. Spell-check.

Alma Alexander said...

The time I absolutely bloew my top was back with the last book in the WOrldweavers series - the first time I saw that the copy editor had changed my PERFECTLY CORRECT "it's" to an "its" I growled and stetted it. By the third instance of her changing every single occasion that its/it's came up to the WRONG version, I was spitting tacks. Particularly since this is one of my own hot buttons and it is utterly unlikely that if I made anegregious and repeating grammar error in my MS it would be this particular one. I don't mind being edited, but if I am at least give me an editor who actually knows what they're doing...?

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

I agree, Rebecca. I think part of the problem comes when the writer doesn't understand the process, or the "process" is different and less congenial than they expect. I have had people show up on the writers' workshop I moderate who are clearly all about copy editing. Their critiques are usually a detailed attempt to rewrite someone's perfectly good prose, and they focus on the story not at all. This is maddening for someone who does actually write well, which many of our members do.

Like you, I believe the author should get the final say. There is the case, though, where the author is not just wrong, but egregiously wrong (like hoard instead of horde and lead instead of led). Does the publisher want to put up with something that makes them look really bad in the name of creative freedom? One hopes not, and that the copy editor can get it through the author's skull where they went wrong.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hear hear, Alma. I blow up pretty quickly when someone changes my correct phrasing/punctuation to something incorrect. I have not had that happen yet with published work, but I've seen it plenty in critiques from people who thought they knew what they were doing. I'm also an apostrophe fiend. When did everything plural become a possessive, for pete's sake?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Sue. I guess that I've been lucky so far, but perhaps because I haven't managed to get too many things published. The improper its/it's and homonymn usage drives me nuts though when I see it.

grassroots08 said...

Each writer's experience is particular to them and between them and their editor or publisher. We all have to negotiate our own terms, if we are not happy with the present arrangements.

I had a story once that I was told the publisher would be buying all the rights. It was my first magazine sale and I was nervous about questioning the contract wording. I didn't want to lose the first sale to stardom. LOL

When I called the magazine, I mentioned that I wanted to later do a book with assorted short stories; this one being my headliner.

My publisher sent me another contract giving me all book rights and half the movie rights, if it went that route someday.

I was thrilled. Cheers, Don

Kathryn Scannell said...

A good copy editor can be a learning experience. I have an issue with ambiguous pronouns. My first editor was kind of lazy and just replaced them with the appropriate character name without regard for whether that made the sentences awkward and repetitive. My second copy editor flagged the first couple with a note about the problem, and left it to me to decide how to fix them. I scratched my head over the cryptic note for a bit, then asked her to explain just what she meant by it. That resulted in my really understanding the problem, and improved my subsequent writing considerably.

So I would definitely advise people to ask why if they don't look at the what the copy editor changed and say "Doh. How did I miss that?" If you're making a real mistake, you don't want to keep making it in the next manuscript, and if you're not, talking about the reason for the proposed change may either reveal a misunderstanding, or give you an opportunity to educate the copy editor.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Kathryn, absolutely. I think you are never too "good" a writer to learn something from someone else. It is nice when you and the editor are in agreement, and even better when you can come to terms to understand where each side is coming from. I, for one, have no desire at all to have something I missed make it out the door--and we all miss something, no matter how many times we read it. And I don't think it's possible to know everything there is to know about English grammar in every situation!

Terri Bruce said...

My first novel was purposely written in a choppy, staccato style, with lots of sentence fragments (it's in first person) and the copy-editor I hired just didn't know what to do with it, kept trying to punctuate it in a way that did not work for the story.

So far I have had a great relationship with the editor of my second novel except that the publishing house style rules forbid starting sentences with a conjunction - with my character does a lot (they even want to change it in dialog) so I'm resisting that. Other changes they have made, however, have helped me see things I was over using/doing.

BTW, I have NEVER heard that you put a comma between an adjective and its noun (battered, hat) - only between multiple/lists of adjectives (old, battered hat). Yikes!

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Hi, Terri. Fight for your style! Yes!

Actually, I have heard, on occasion, from old fogies like me who also have a creaky memory of ancient grammar teachers who wanted either old battered hat or old, battered, hat for consistency. Either neither of them get a comma, or both do. I, like you, don't separate the last one from the noun no matter what.

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