How to Survive the Copyedit

When you do get published, there comes before the typesetting of your work one of the many events of great vulnerability for a writer: the copyedit. The copyeditor won’t tell you if she likes your work – she’ll just tell you where you went wrong, how you went wrong, and how you can make it right.

I always bring my work as close as possible to perfection before submission, reasoning that the volume of submissions an editor must manage forces him to read not with an eye toward acceptance, but rejection. This means that minimizing errors reduces the number of handles an editor can use to carry your work to the trash bin.

Because I think I’m pretty good at getting the manuscript right, the copyedit always unnerves me, especially in a long work like a novel. The biggest casualty of long workspans is consistency. Everything from your use of the Oxford comma to your basic diction can change over a period of three or five years, and the copyeditor is there to normalize these changes.

The copyeditor is your friend. You may not feel that way about this overscrupulous nitpicker (copyeditor note: redundancy), but trust her. She will keep you from making a fool of yourself, or at least try, with the resources at hand, i.e., your manuscript.

In this day and age (copyeditor note: cliché), most copyeditors work through your Microsoft Word document with the track changes feature enabled, often adding comments to justify corrections or offer suggestions. Julia Armstrong from my alma mater, the University of Toronto, lists in a document for a copyediting workshop the five Cs of copyediting:

“Make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.” She adds, “Copy editors should make it say what it means, and mean what it says.”

While this is all fair and true, a certain latitude needs to be applied when the work in question in fiction, as authors may stretch or break specific rules in the name of art.

I’ve just endured – er – enjoyed the copyedit of my forthcoming novel, The Sky Manifest. Here is the copyeditor at work, in this case improving clarity:

  • “He watched through the steel grating moirés of light rippling across the plates of broken ice below…” becomes, “He watched through the steel grating as moirés of light rippled across the plates of broken ice below…”

There are lots of examples of correcting errors, usually of the type where precision that is not considered during composition becomes essential once the work goes public, for example:

  • Pine-Sol, not Pine Sol; CorningWare, not Corningware
  • The title of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” vs. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”; the copyeditor writes: “Sources, even authoritative ones, seem to disagree on whether the g is dropped. I’m following the punctuation used on the cover of the single.”

I want to commend the copyeditor’s astute concern regarding characters smoking in a tavern:

The province-wide ban on indoor smoking (enclosed workplaces and enclosed public places) went into effect on May 31, 2006, according to this page:

http://www.mhp.gov.on.ca/en/smoke-free/legislation/default.asp.

Near the end of the book, the TV news covers the release of the final Harry Potter book, which came out in July 2007. I’m not sure exactly how much time is meant to elapse offstage while Nathan cycles the continent (it certainly could be more than a year), so I’m flagging this just in case it’s a concern. (Same concern would then apply to the bar in Thunder Bay where Nathan meets the pimp.)

The Choo Choo could be a bar that flouts the new law, but that would be inconsistent with Claire’s nervous adherence to the liquor-serving rules.

Another excellent example: I refer to a newspaper headline reporting the D-Day invasion, speculating that the headline would read, “ALLIES LAND IN FRANCE!” To my own credit, I was not far from the mark. But the copyeditor noticed a discrepancy and corrected it, by finding the headline itself in the Globe & Mail’s archives, where it stands minus the exclamation point:

Allies Land in France

The book’s style includes some quirks, for example the frequent compounding of specific adjective-noun combinations, such as “towtruck” and “heatlamps,” (much like the word “copyeditor,” which some insist on writing as “copy-editor”), saddling this copyeditor with the extra chore of assessing the comprehensibility of each (for example, “arclamps” could be misread as “ar-clamps”), while adding candidate phrases to the mix (steeringwheel vs. steering wheel).

I like occasionally to use ambiguous descriptions when the characteristic being described is inconsequential to the plot. In The Sky Manifest, two come to mind. The first is “Eyes the colour of beer bottles.” The copyeditor rightly asserts, “This doesn’t specify the colour (beer bottles come in a variety of colours).” I used this description because the character’s eyecolour is irrelevant to the story, and I like it that his eyes might vary by reader. One might imagine his eye colour as brown, while someone else makes them green. If you drink a lot of Corona, perhaps they’re clear, or the colour of Corona beer itself.

In another section, a man is described as a “slight codger.” The copyeditor asks, “is this a slight (small) man who is a codger, or is he a bit of a codger?” The character described is inconsequential – the ambiguity of the description allows the reader to decide.

I’m tickled by the idea that the ambiguity of these two phrases represents an overt variance in a process of reader interpretation that runs throughout the entire novel. I do not tell you how to respond to Nathan’s reaction to the girl in the amusement park ride – you respond according to your own values, ideas, culture, thoughts. While interpretation of character responses are more subtle than those surrounding physical descriptions, they are in fact more important that the colour of a man’s eyes or whether an old coot is only slightly a coot, or a little coot.

In the end I concede the first point, but maintain the second. The beer bottle eyes are now “eyes like brown beachglass,” to prevent the ambiguity from interrupting the flow of the text, while the second is left to the reader’s discretion. You get to decide what kind of codger greets Nathan at the Canada-U.S. border. It’s like a painfully subtle Choose Your Own Adventure.

All in all, this was a labourious laborious, but unconfrontational copyedit, and I’m pleased with the care and treatment of the copyeditor. I still have no idea if he liked the book. But he made it right, and for that, I’m thankful.

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7 thoughts on “How to Survive the Copyedit

  1. TheGirl says:

    So anyone that you can recommend to copyedit a manuscript?

  2. Jill Berry says:

    Is that how you spell ‘laborious’ in US?

  3. A Bradbury says:

    I think what Jill Berry is trying to point out is that you spelt it “labourious” three lines from the bottom. (I blame the copy-editor).

    • Ack, you’re right! I compose in MS-Word, which defaults to US English, meaning it flags all the “-our” apparent misspellings, so I habitually ignore them. And I can’t afford copyedits of all my posts. Thanks for pointing it out…fixed.

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