The gentle art of copy editing

The copy edit for Touchstone arrived back on my desk Friday, a week earlier than they had thought. Which means that all the jobs I thought I had time to do beforehand—weed whacking, tax organizing, laying out plans for the wedding party in October—are now put back until the first part of September.

For anyone who hasn’t seen a copyedited manuscript, imagine a nice clean page of typescript, some dialogue, some description. With an ordinary pencil, make some marks upon this pristine object: cross out a line here, change a word there, write a note such as “I’m already tired of this man” on the margin. You are the book’s editor, and those are your helpful [sic] contributions to your author’s hard-sweated prose.

Then change to a green pencil, and become the copy editor. First, replace half the commas with semicolons and the periods with commas. Replace the semicolons with colons, and vice-versa. Change the spelling of a word, then erase (or, half-erase, since green pencil is pretty indelible) the change and put a row of small dots under the word because you’ve found the author’s notes about using English-English in dialogue and writing. Hyphenate a phrase and make a note in the margin, “cf. P. 56” to give the author the pleasure of hunting through a manuscript for some obscure use of that phrase that she has hyphenated. Capitalize the word city, which you do by drawing three lines under the first letter, and put the note “cf. P. 340” in the margin. On a slip of pinkish paper that glues to the back of the page and folds over, write the comment, “Is this Tuesday or Wednesday?” Glue it on and fold it over on its perforations.

Then pack the page into an already bashed-up box and send across the country to the author’s front door, where she gives the delivery man a sickly smile and accepts it.

Using a brown pencil (which you, the author, have had to drive across town to buy, because all you had were green pencils, the same green pencil this copy editor has decided to use) you put a check mark in the margin beside the editor’s crossed-out line because she was right, you don’t need this explanation, but after some thought you write a firm “stet” in the margin next to where she changed a word, because your word is better than hers, damn it. Your brown pencil hovers over her remark that she is tired of the character already, but in the end you just write “Sorry” and go on.

With the green-pencil remarks, you are more brutal, although by the end of the manuscript you’ll be resigned to a series of checks in the margin rather than fighting with the implacable green penciled-woman. You let stand most of the punctuation changes because honestly, you’re not all that sure about the use of semicolons anyway, but you dutifully hunt down the page 56 hyphenation and then write here, “Either is fine” and grace it with a check. The city/City problem, however, receives a large brown STET, since its appearance on page 340 refers to the City of London, whereas here it’is just a generic city.

The slip of paper gives you more of a problem, since it indicates that a reader might be confused as to the passing of time. You read through the previous ten pages, see that you have indeed failed to indicate the day change (copy editors are almost always right on this kind of thing, it’s built into their genetic code.) So you find a place to slip in a phrase about how in the morning it was still raining, return to your page, see that you’ve finished with the lead pencil and the green remarks, but your eyes return to that “I’m already tired of this man” and you wonder if you should try to change that feeling, and if so, how. You make a note on the pad by your side–Do I want the reader tired of C?–knowing that if you decide you don’t, that if you choose to act on those six words of your editor’s, it will cost you an entire day’s work. Then you turn over the page.

And repeat, 682 more times.

Are we having fun yet?

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  1. annmcn on August 19, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    Talk about an exercise in humility — that balance between paying heed to criticism without utterly losing confidence in what you wrote.

  2. bani on August 19, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Oh, we’re having OODLES of fun. 😉

    I bet I’ll love C.

  3. vicki on August 19, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Crikey–if she was so tired of Mr. Whats-his-face, why didn’t she say something a draft or two back, when you were still rearranging the furniture? Why mention it after everything’s in position, the paint is dry and the pictures are all hung?

    If he really is tiresome, maybe you could inflict a few scenes of laryngitis on him so he just sits, mute, and blends into the wallpaper while the other characters do their thing and ignore him as best they can. Or an out-of-town errand might be nice. There can’t be too many low-maintenance ways to reduce a characters’ profile in a finished story. Arrgh!

  4. corgimom on August 19, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    Ok. First of all I like the concept of week whacking because I have several weeks each year I’d love to whack right out of existence (not to be a copy editor. Really. Just look at my punctuation).

    Second of all, I am reaffirmed in the fact that I do not want to be a real writer, just the sort that my child and partners adore.

    Third of all, keep the good red wine handy and best of luck to you!

  5. Kerry on August 20, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Hehehehehe . . . week whacked . . . hehehehe.

    OK, but what I really want to know is, why a *brown* pencil? Why not red, or blue?

    I will cherish Touchstone all the more for knowing what you’re going through, and I’m sure I’ll love everyone I’m supposed to love, and get tired of the ones I’m supposed to get tired of.

    Best of luck indeed!

  6. admin on August 20, 2007 at 10:39 am

    Why not red or blue? Red pencil is a possibility, but it makes me feel too like a schoolteacher. As for blue, the instructions clearly say:

    Do not use blue pencil, any kind of ink, or felt pen.

    Blood, presumably, is permissable.

  7. vicki on August 20, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    I think I’d do it all in pearlescent day-glo gel pens for the character-weary lady.

  8. crinklequirk on August 20, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    On the one level, your post intrigues me in that it’s been a while since I proofed, but not as long since I edited. I slide between editor and copy editor in my preferences, I suspect.

    On the other level, I find the idea of brown pencil quite natural, and probably a lovely contrast to the green used by the copy editor. Besides, if blue isn’t possible (and yes, red is rather school-marmish), then why not brown? I use purple Quink ink in my Parker fountain pen, and it’s always a pleasant variation from the usual.

    Now I miss my disposable sepia-brown fountain pen. It was my favourite.

    Good luck on staying sanity’s stoic course. 🙂

  9. denisen on August 20, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Ugh . . . I routinely edit other writers’ work in my volunteer position as the editor of a couple of newsletters. It just kills me to edit the writing of someone I love (my husband often asks me to review his writing, and he returns the favor for mine). I do my best to be gentle in remarks, especially, but sometimes my green pencil (or orange pen – depends on what’s handy at the time) just can’t be avoided. Have no doubt – I’ve been called to task by more than one writer, enraged at having had their art trifled with. So at this time, on behalf of editors (copy and otherwise) worldwide, let me thank you for your patience and attention to our efforts to be helpful to writers (and their readers) alike. 😎

    By the way, here’s a presumably helpful link to a Strunk & White bit on use of semicolons – best of luck in that regard!

    Happy writing – am looking f’ward to Touchstone with bated (not baited – ew!) breath!


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