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.