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Copyeditor Giving Me Grief March 7, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As some of you may know, I’ve been working with editors to get a piece I wrote last year published in an anthology.  It had been pretty easy up to this point, partly because I know the editor I’ve been working with and partly because none of the suggested amendments have been substantial or required too much work on my part.

That’s not to say we didn’t have any disagreements on certain things — I pushed back on suggestions I didn’t think worked or made sense, and I relented on things I didn’t think affected the essence of the piece.  It was all quite straightforward.  We probably exchanged three or four versions all up.

Once we agreed on the ‘final version’, the piece then went off to an outsourced copyeditor to get the piece into ‘house style’ (ie the set style of the publisher) and to fix certain things such as punctuation, spelling, grammar, syntax, wording, etc (usually by this stage there are supposed to be very few, though you’d be surprised, as I found out) — and most importantly get the proofs ready (ie how the pages would look like in the finished book).

And so yesterday I received the proofs from my editor.  I was told to check the edits made by the copyeditor and do a final scan, just to be safe.

At first I thought, who cares, there’s no chance of there being any significant changes, so maybe I’ll just be lazy and send it back with my ‘okay’.  The piece has been read dozens of times by more than a dozen people, and any spelling, grammar mistakes (etc) would have been picked up already.  Besides, the proof sent to me was in clean and not marked up, so I had no idea what had actually been amended.

Fortunately, I put my laziness and trust in people aside and decided to have another read (which is tough because you’ve read it so many times and are, frankly, sick of it).  Once you words go into print, they stay there forever, so you can never be too careful.

As it turned out, the copyeditor had made some baffling edits.  Not very substantial ones, of course, but just a change of a word here or there, an additional couple of words here or there, and some changes to punctuation marks.  If they were necessary or somehow improved the piece by making things clearer, then fine, thanks for the help.

But no.  Instead, these changes not only introduced factual errors into the piece, they also affected my voice, style and rhythm — perhaps not in a negative way, but it those things are still mine.  Take them away, and the piece has a different feel.

But what would I know?  I should trust the professionals, right?  If they say I should remove a comma after ‘Consequently’ at the start of a sentence, then okay, I trust their judgment.  If they say I should (for instance) add a comma between ‘John has the ability to make people feel comfortable’ and ‘very quickly’, then fine — I don’t necessarily agree with it but I’ll let it go.

But what is the deal with adding ‘he says’ into a sentence when it’s something I said (as an opinion)?  By the way, this is a non-fiction piece that features quotes take from interviews, so when you say someone said something, you better be damn sure they actually said it.

Similarly, what is the deal with putting quotation marks and italicising a paragraph that is not actually a quote?  Take the following mock sentence as an example:

John accuses Mary of trying to present him as ‘an old cow’.  He also says what Mary said about him ‘was all lies’ and that ‘she could not be trusted.’

There is nothing wrong with that paragraph, but the copyeditor in this situation changed it to the following:

John accuses Mary of ‘trying to present him as “an old cow”.  He also says what Mary said about him “was all lies” and that “she could not be trusted”.

Does that change make sense to you?  And I crazy here, or does this smell like laziness or incompetence on the part of the copyeditor?  Is it a matter of changing things for the sake of changing things so it looks like he/she did their job?



1. uioae - March 8, 2011

I’m sorry to say – having only read the quotes at the end (because I’m so very tired) – your copy-editor is wrong.

2. JN - March 20, 2011

You are not crazy. I just had an “offshore” (Indian) copyeditor insert dozens of bizarre changes into a 500-page ms., ones that I am tearing my hair out to find. Many of the changes alter the meaning to be just plain wrong (e.g. “All calico cats are female” changed to “All female cats are calico”). Bizarre commas, hyphens, etc. abound. I am trying to get the marked-up Word doc so I can find all the errors inserted. WHY and HOW could someone be so arrogant as to change our writing into something with a different meaning? It’s mind-boggling.

3. David - March 23, 2011

You should protest.

The punctuation changes you noted and said you were willing to live with don’t make sense either. Why should you accept them? The problem with not sweating the small stuff is that all the small stuff adds up.

A sentence modifier like “consequently” is typically followed by a comma, although it may not be mandatory in certain cases. To break up a verb and the adverb that modifies it into separate units with a comma is also arbitrary. Is “very quickly” intended to modify “make people feel comfortable” or not? Inserting an intervening comma introduces unnecessary doubt. It’s possible that a comma would create a break for the purpose of especially stressing the phrase “very quickly,” but whether that works is a stylistic question that depends on the context. And in any case, it’s not the job of the copy editor to override the intentions of the author when he has been presented with clear and clean prose that is virtually ready for print.

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