Don’t Hate the Copy Editor

The core reason that a copy edit can turn into a clash concerns the varying roles that an author and copy editor play in the publishing process. The writer desires freedom of expression in order to tell a good story. A copy editor tries to corral an author’s exuberance within boundaries that make the reader’s experience error-free. It is no wonder that where to draw those lines can become so problematic.

An author needs to explode within the work. I encourage this among all the writers I work with—get it out on the page. Don’t let a character’s thoughts remain inside the author’s head. Describe action in minute detail to put us inside a character’s shoes. Place us all in a character’s surroundings.  That is a writer’s most important job: to make us vicariously enjoy a character’s experiences. The more deeply a character is explored, the more we will enjoy the book.

In the desire to throw everything out on the table where the reader can see it, errors can be made. An author is focused on the big picture, not all the details that compose sentences. A very common concern for a copy editor is the series comma (with three objects in a row, a comma is added before the “and”). An author may regard the matter as negotiable; sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. Yet a copy editor needs to make the usage consistent, for a very good reason. Readers take cues from every element of the text, and a missing comma can cause them to falter, wondering if a mistake was made. If this concern seems petty, that’s because it is. Yet this tiny variance can occur hundreds of times within a manuscript, which means hundreds of possible momentary flickers of doubt in a reader’s mind—all of which are unnecessary with consistent application of the rule. 

The unending onslaught of such small corrections can infuriate an author, particularly if the copy editor decides that certain rules “must” be applied. Once she has applied it once, she then must be consistent with her change and mark it every time after that. This license can be taken imperiously. After all, she has worked on possibly hundreds of manuscripts, and she knows what the standard rules are. The author is regarded as a bumbling fool. That can mean the copy editor is acting like a cop, and it isn’t her duty to police authors but to help them. 

The conflict is compounded by the fact that authors can be arrogant themselves.  They can be irate if anybody dares touch anything they write, no matter how well grounded the cause. The level of rage, I should point out, usually corresponds to an author’s familiarity with grammar rules. 

How do you avoid this struggle? You should be aware of good grammar practice. The rules are not meant to hem in your exuberance of expression. They are part of a compact between you and your readers, so their reading experience is seamless. An experienced copy editor will bend when that is sensible. You too, if you are not a hot dog, have the right to ask that a change be restored. But don’t hate the copy editor when, most of the time, they are trying to make you look good. You are simply engaging in an age-old struggle between creativity and analysis. You are the creator: you can confer forgiveness. 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.