Revile the Copy Editor

But please don’t shoot it.[1]

Things your editor and publisher will never tell you:

The copyeditor has probably been instructed to follow (a) a style book—APA, Chicago, or the like—and (b) often an in-house style book, which may be as long as the published style book. Your copyeditor, in all likelihood a hapless free lance,[2] must follow these guidelines or starve. Publishers and editors don’t have to go to the trouble of firing free lances; they just don’t send them any more work.

One of the reasons for hiring consultants—or free lances—is to have someone to blame things on. So when the shivering, suffering copyeditor closes its eyes and runs that macro to change in order to to to, to change the vast majority and the majority to most, and to make website into Web site, it is earning some of its pittance by giving your publisher and editor plausible deniability.

In many houses a cabal of publisher, editors, and their hangers-on—probably decades ago—sat down around a big table and decided How Things Should Be Done. One of them points out that a majority is the group that casts the preponderance of votes; therefore, it should not be used to mean the less specific most. Another is a demon for the unsplit infinitive, and so all infinitives must be united, no matter how awkward the result. While it’s on the subject, the demon wants to make sure only goes where it “belongs.” Yet a third member of the cabal had a mad crush on its fourth-grade teacher and worships at the altar of Miss Hessin’s dicta regarding the use of commas and semicolons. And so the in-house style book is made. Not born, mind you; born things die. Made things can last centuries.

Some of these “rules” are arbitrary, some are outdated, and some were never correct. But over time, in a historically conservative industry (though one might never know it today) they were ground into the culture of the house and have become part of its voice.

So here I am, the monkey in the middle copyeditor, running macros with eyes squeezed shut to undo some of your favorite constructions, unsplitting infinitives, clicking and dragging only to where you don’t want it, adding and deleting commas and changing them to semicolons. You are enraged. You shout at your editor. Your editor (also an it), without saying a word about style books, blames the copyeditor and promises to whip that little worm (me) into shape. Whether you get your way depends on (a) the strength of the house’s desire to publish your next book, (b) the venality and pusillanimity of the editor, and (c) the fondness of the editor for the particular rule the copyeditor imposed on your Deathless Prose.

About that deathless prose. Many copyeditors, believe it or not, have taste. Many of them know good writing from bad. Many of them can see the sparkle of diamond inside the uncut (yes) gray octahedron. Face it: your writing is not perfect. Nothing made by man is perfect. But your copyeditor can see things you can’t: A pet word or phrase used so often that the book club makes bets about how often it will appear in your new book. (Nora Roberts, are you fisting your hands in your hair?) The series of that clauses that goes on so long that the reader loses track of the fact that the sentence had a beginning that wasn’t bad. (In my own writing, the limit is one.) The ambiguous placement of only. The misuse of prevaricate when the author means procrastinate. The dangling participle, often harmless but sometimes disastrously or hilariously misleading.

Do you trust anyone to know good writing and tell you the truth? I suggest that if you do, you let that person review the copyedited manuscript and reality-check your responses.

 

Next: Words I dare you to expunge from your writing. And why.

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