Saturday, March 18, 2006

Blue Pencil in Hand

I've spent all this afternoon at work going over the copyediting for one of our novels. They have the main lights off on the floor to save energy over the weekend, so I'm working by the light of my little desk lamp, a bright circle on the page in the quiet. My computer gleams to the side with the full digital text of the manuscript (essential for finding multiple occurrences of a troublesome word or phrase) and Merriam-Webster's Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary and Google (for use in checking mysterious nouns), and, I admit, a game of Internet Scrabble, because it is putatively my day off. . . .

Still, when we're not under deadline pressure, this is one of my favorite parts of editing: the tiny word-by-word, comma-by-comma, dash-vs.-ellipsis-vs.-period decisions on how to make meaning and communicate that to the reader. The author provides the text; the copyeditor's work offers an interpretation of that text, trying to make everything as clear, correct, and consistent as it can possibly be; and I adjudicate between the two, sometimes siding with the copyeditor for clarity or consistency, sometimes with the author for emotion. (This all gets approved by the author in the end, of course.)

Consistency is the big thing in copyediting: If you have the character's thoughts in italics once, then they should always be in italics; if you have them in quotation marks, they should always be in quotation marks. Authors are generally not good about consistency -- nor is it their job to be. And then there are all the rules about how numbers are treated (one vs. 1), or whether the period should go inside or outside the parenthesis, and whether you use a three-period ellipsis or a four-period ellipsis (the latter for complete sentences). . . . Whatever the Chicago Manual of Style decrees about the situation is usually what we do. My background is in copyediting, so I love this sort of stuff. But trying to be totally consistent throughout a long manuscript (this one's 391 pages) is a bear.

And then sometimes you break consistency for emotional effect. Sometimes you need that comma after "like" for a significant pause, or the character should misspell that word because that's part of his character, to spell words wrong, and the copyeditor corrected it because that's what her job is; then it's my job to put the misspelling back. There are no hard and fast unbreakable rules, same as anything else involving writing and editing.

All this takes forever, I must say, because it's the Oscar-Wilde-comma moment again and again and again: I've been working on the manuscript for about seven hours between yesterday and today (and allowing for Scrabble and e-mail and now blogging breaks), and I'm only on p. 293. My goal is to get the queries off to the author before I leave tonight, which means I should probably post this now and go back to the book. But for those of you who are interested in the editorial process: It's this, every day, one letter at a time.


  1. Wow! I had no idea how involved it is! Good luck, and hopefully you'll reach your goal of sending the queries off before you leave.

    Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Some book are filled with mistakes, but it’s even sadder when an otherwise beautiful book has just one or two easily corrected, but obviously overlooked, typos or inconsistencies. So thanks for being so nit-picky. Is it common to make corrections, when noticed, in future printings?

    - Jay

  3. Such long hours, and yet it sounds romantic. How lucky you are that your work will result in something that makes the world better. Your writers are lucky to have you.

  4. Wow. What a lot of work! I'm glad to discover that i don't have to figure all the punctuation out for myself... i'm terrible at punctuation.

    I hope you do get SOME time off this weekend.

  5. Your attention to copyediting makes me wonder about how graphic novels are handled (or will be, as they become a bigger part of children's literature).

    I just finished reading a prominent one (for adults) that came out a couple of years back and contained a pair of goofs that stick with me as much as the beautiful story and illustrations.

    Jay's right -- it's sad.