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Copy Edits: To Challenge or Concede?


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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Every decision you’ve made will be called into question when you write for publication—right down to where every last punctuation mark is laid. In a comment on my last month’s Grammar Un-Schooling post, Debora Gray targeted the practical ramifications of creative expression in a way that inspired this post. There may be as many ways to address Deborah’s concerns as there are authors who’ve tussled with their copy editors, so if you are a published author, please share your experience!

Deborah wrote:

How do you know if you have the right copy editor? If you eschew the conventions and go your merry way like Yannick Murphy (The Call) or Peter Heller (The Dog Stars), both of which I loved, despite Heller’s nonexistent dialogue tags or Murphy’s unusual, staccato phrasing, how do you know whether an editor is making appropriate grammar, sentence structure and punctuation corrections or crushing your creative spirit?

Since all good working relationships are built on a foundation of mutual respect, try employing the following mad skills to your interactions with your copy editor.

Keep in mind the copy editor’s role. While your copy editor will pore over your manuscript to check for everything from typos to garbled sentences and more, she is not a judge nor an adversary nor a teacher tasked with “correcting” your paper. Copy editors are simply doing their thing, and their thing is a left-brained thing. These (most often free-lance) professionals are tasked with holding every aspect of your prose accountable to a style guide given to them by the publisher.

For the former journalists among us, that is not AP style, but a style based on the Chicago Manual of Style. Nuances in style can change from house to house. For example, many adhere to the general Chicago rule of spelling out numbers from zero to one hundred, and using numerals thereafter. My copyeditor suggested a mix: a house number could be rendered as 35 Maple Street, for example, while a character’s age should be “thirty-five.” Years ago, a friend said his publisher was such a stickler about numbers that they demanded he write out “three fifty-seven Magnum,” which seemed to him an impediment, as it might take readers a few deadly seconds to recognize this meant a .357 Magnum. But if that’s their house style, you might not win that fight.

The reasons writers do what they do springs from a more complex confluence of variables. Creativity has no style guide. As long as you are making a conscious choice that makes sense to advance readers, you are within your right to reject any decision from a copy editor that you feel diminishes your work. Some will be obvious to you; others—if there’s time—you may want to question the reasoning for.

Obtain a sample edit. It is crucial that your copy editor understands what you are trying to do and why you are attempting to do it the way you’ve chosen. If you are self-publishing, that means submitting your work for a sample edit and then having a follow-up call. If you are traditionally publishing work that is quite experimental, ask your editor if he can arrange for you to speak with the copy editor before she begins. If during that conversation you get more and more disheartened, and can’t help picturing the copy editor with steam in her iron, ready to iron all the “wrinkles” that you have so painstakingly and meaningfully chosen to include, save yourself some trouble by finding/requesting a new copy editor.

Know thyself. Hopefully you’ve done enough critique swaps by this point to know your weak spots. Perhaps you have a learning disorder, are a notoriously poor speller, or always confuse homophones. You may sprinkle your prose with commas like salt on fries. English may not be your first language. None of these attributes has any bearing on whether you’ve written an engaging, marketable story. But if the correction is in a known area of weakness, be grateful that someone has your back and accept the change.

Set your emotions aside. Truth be told, most writers bristle when told our work has been found lacking. If your commas and innovative syntax are as precious to us you as your characters, take a few days to move past this initial emotional reaction. Remember that writing for publication means that you have chosen to rely on a team to help you put out a better product, and a copy editor—whether hired by you or your traditional publisher—provides one of your needed specialties. Maybe wait to move forward until you’ve stopped using the word imbecile in your thoughts.

Ask for context. If you are concerned about a particular copy edit, you might want to ask why it was made before fighting it. (When I do line edits for my developmental editing clients, I typically substantiate the suggested change in a comment, such as, “Due to the lack of proximity, this pronoun reference isn’t clear.”) This additional information can help you make a choice toward clarity or meaning. But if the passage marked is dialogue spoken by a character hiding an addiction, say, and the “tell” is that this guy isn’t clear about anything—and you still believe in that choice—you are well within your rights to add a comment: STET. This isn’t a cuss word; it means “let it stand,” implying that this is the author’s choice.

Be reasonable about what you fight for. I once heard writer boast about how he fought his copy editor tooth and nail to keep a metaphor that had no relationship to the themes of his book. I have to admit that hearing of his heroic effort to protect his artistic license did put the word imbecile in mind, but it wasn’t in regard to his copy editor. If you’d like to work with that publisher again, don’t let that author be you.

Consider copy editing a conversation, not an edict. Creative expression can push the boundaries of style guide “correctness” into a gray area in which the copy editor’s reliable handrails may no longer exist. Remind yourself again that she is not trying to crush your creative spirit; she is trying to help your story be as effective as you hope it will be. As for alternate ways of writing dialogue, if you are consistent in your approach—and your advance readers can acclimate to your style and figure out who is speaking—you might as well stay the course.

Read the edited copy aloud. If voice, energy, rhythm, purposeful repetition, or any other intentional element has been lost, trust your gut and write STET. In the end, everyone on the teams I’ve worked with realizes that they are only trying to maximize the potential of the author’s work to connect with a reader, so it would go against their mission to deny you artistic license—as long as you are being clear.

 

Case Study: The Call by Yannick Murphy

The Call was published in 2011 by Harper Perennial, an imprint that parent company HarperCollins describes as “a vibrant line of paperback originals including new voices, boundary-pushing works, [and] contemporary fiction.” I was not familiar with this novel, but found it so compulsively readable, witty, and insightful that I gobbled up its sample chapters. I also combed its reviews.

One 5-star reviewer cleverly co-opted the writing style of the author:

Warning: The format of this unique novel may, at first, be off-putting. It was for me.

Suggestion: Stick with it for several pages

Title: The central character, a large animal vet, gets a wide variety of calls about a wide variety of animals, many of which one would not expect to find in a rural area which I suspect is somewhere in New England since the author lives in Vermont.

What I Say: This may be one of the most unique novels I have ever read–and I am a very avid reader. And what you are experiencing reading my “review” should give you a bit of a hint about the format of this novel in which a family of five is confronted with an hunting accident. These are folks who love to go hunting, especially for deer.

What I Think: It might be fun to try writing a short piece of fiction using this format. And I think the person who gave this a two-star review may have not given the novel enough time because I think that most readers will quite quickly fall into the pace of this novel.

[etc.]

I also found this, from a 2-star review:

I found the style tedious. I’m all for being creative, but this didn’t work for me. A good piece of fiction is either a page turner or something to savor.

These are great reviews, in my opinion. The 5-star reviewer showed what we were in for, and the 2-star reviewer laid out helpful personal standards for “good fiction” that warn readers to adjust their expectations.

That 2-star review, written by a retired schoolteacher, also included these disparate sentences: “The narrative format is experimental,” and then, later: “I read this format for a while and wondered when the author was going to tell a traditional story. It never happened.” So clearly, even when acknowledging that a form is experimental, a reader brings certain expectations to your prose that they may not be able to set aside—and your copyeditor is one of those readers.

Experimentation in any form is good, as it encourages us to examine, again and again, what we expect from a novel. So I took a peek at Murphy’s This is the Water, (2014, Harper Perennial), in which the author adopts a more traditional paragraph structure—yet her creativity is in full display with this opening:

This is the water, lapping the edge of the pool, coming up in small waves as children race through it. This is the swim mom named Dinah wearing the team shirt with a whale logo on it, yelling at her daughter Jessie to swim faster. This is Jessie who cannot hear Dinah because Jessie is in the water…

The “This is” opener continues for most paragraphs throughout the first five chapters. The antagonist is similarly introduced: “This is our killer.” Other creative choices include some real-l-l-ly long paragraphs used to build characterization and provide context, and a switch to second person when a character named Annie is introduced; apparently the novel is written to her.

The top positive review calls it: “Stylistically stunning, engrossing and real.” The top critical review calls it “impossible to read.”

Of course almost every novel has a wide span of ratings, but of note here is that the reviews of Murphy’s work overwhelmingly focus on the style in which the story is delivered. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly said of This is the Water: “Obscenely suspenseful. . . . In Murphy’s hands, the structure becomes almost hypnotic and when the story hits full speed in the final quarter, the suspense becomes almost excruciating.”

Clearly, Murphy’s copy editor was able to support what she was trying to do. If yours can’t seem to get on board, it’s time to seek a new one.

Just remember that the more you lean toward the experimental, the more certain you’ll have to be as to why you have chosen to so. If you want to stick to your .357 guns, your position should be defensible.

Thank you for giving me the seed for this month’s post, Deborah!

If you’ve worked with a copy editor before, what is your take on Deborah’s question? Have any of you dealt with a similar quandary after receiving feedback from a “grammar correction” critique? What suggested copy changes have you refused to make? Traditionally published authors: have you ever tried asking for a different copyeditor, and how did that go?

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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