Copy Edits

Posted: May 14th, 2011 under Echoes of Betrayal, Editing, the writing life.
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Copy Edits are, in the best of times, a nerve-wracking proposition, because CEs, unlike one’s own marvelous, wonderful, thoughtful, brilliant Editor, are professional nitpickers.   If you don’t have a nitpicker mentality yourself (and most storytellers don’t) and if you have a feel for the needs of fiction as opposed to, say, a sociology textbook (and most storytellers do) the more rigid CEs will drive you batty.    Good CEs, as I’ve said before, are pearls beyond price and save your bacon.   Not-so-good CEs become embroiled in trying to rewrite your work to suit their notions, and in the process miss actual mistakes they should catch.

I’ve never suggested that a CE’s work is easy–it’s not, especially in fiction, and most especially in fiction that, by its nature, does not adhere to conventional vocabulary, spelling, and language use.   Really good fiction CEs–and really good SF/F CEs–are rare.

But from the writer’s point of view, there’s nothing he/she can do…at least, I haven’t figured out how to a) find a CE who will fix my actual mistakes while leaving my story and my style alone, and b) convince a publisher to hire that person to work on my stuff.    As a result, I’ve had CEs of the intolerably bad to the amazingly good sort, and I never know what I’m going to get next.   (One of the best CEs  I’d had was fired by the publisher for another reason.)

Bad CEs think all writers are arrogant ignoramuses who resist CE changes because they’re, well, arrogant.   On the contrary, I’m far from the only writer who is delighted when a CE catches something that needs to be caught (John had blue eyes in chapter 18 but brown eyes everywhere else.   The sentence has “the the house” instead of “the house.”    An unusual word–not a new vocabulary entry for this story–shows up twice or three times in one paragraph, when it’s not intended as emphasis.)   I’m doubly delighted if the CE has grasped that grammatical errors in dialog are part of characterization, and that the rhythm of each sentence may well be intentional and purposeful, so shoving an extraneous three-syllable word into it is not a great idea.

Fix the obvious real mistakes (the continuity errors, the duplicated words), question anything else that bothers the CE (leaving me room to write in the margin)  and (except for typos, duplicated words, continuity errors) leave dialog alone.   Do not add material–query with the perceived need for this material.  (“Not clear if A is still in the house or outside”)

I’m just starting the copy edits.   So far…not sure.    CE added a word I didn’t think necessary, especially as, in the opening scene, it would be inappropriate to define it and it isn’t significant in what happens.  There’s use and explanation later on.    And a few other things.  OTOH, I don’t have to agree with the CE always (or often) but I stop and think through every mark, often leaving one if I’m not strongly opposed.  So every mark takes time and thought (and then, if I put in my STET or my fix to a query, more time.)

You can’t ever tell how it’s going to go until you’re 20-50 pages in.   So now my nose is on the grindstone again.  This is  good.


  • Comment by Naomi — May 14, 2011 @ 9:02 am


    As you say, nitpicking to fix typos, errors and duplication, nitpicking to change the author’s writing style is heinous!

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 14, 2011 @ 9:28 am


    And…I’m now officially miffed. Only Editor can demand cuts or additions. Editor and I dealt with all that earlier.

    Sigh. Under the present circumstances, I’d like to have had an easy time with copy edits. For one thing, I’m more tense than usual and thus might over-react to something (but this…no. That particular marking would have my hackles up any time.)

    I understand why writers aren’t given direct access to the assigned CEs, but it’s doggone inconvenient. I think at least we ought to told what instructions were given to the CE.

    And something even some Editors don’t understand is that for an “ear-writer” (someone who is very, very aware of the sound of the language, and modulates it to create effects) the cutting out and adding in of even single words changes the effect…and requires other changes to retain the desired effect. You cannot pull a word out of a sentence, or a sentence out of a paragraph, or move a sentence somewhere else in a paragraph, without changing the rhythm, the relationship of vowel sounds, the points of greatest tension and greatest relaxation.

    Sighing and muttering will go on through the days of the copy edits, I can tell.

  • Comment by Kerry (aka Trouble) — May 14, 2011 @ 11:09 am


    Must be something going around the CE world – Laura Anne Gilman was complaining about the CE from hell earlier this week. Her CE had changed all the spellings of her British characters’ dialog to using American spellings. STET all over the place. My sympathy as your books are much larger than hers and so this will be a correspondingly longer/larger headache.

  • Comment by Laura BurgandyIce — May 14, 2011 @ 11:47 am


    Oh… that totally makes me want to BE a Copy Edit!! to get it right, I mean (not saying I could, but I do wish I could.) I am just starting the 5th book I’ve read of yours I can feel the rhythm of the pace, how you’re controlling it on purpose. Your writing seems very purposeful on many levels. I am peeved someone was allowed to edit that didn’t see that.

  • Comment by Chuck — May 14, 2011 @ 12:04 pm


    One thing is, the CE needs to be able to separate the tasks of reading for the mechanics and reading for sense. You can try to do both at the same time, but it really takes multiple passes concentrating on different things to do a good job. I don’t know if most CE’s today are “apprenticing” under an experienced editor like I did, but there’s a lot to be said for the practice.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 14, 2011 @ 1:56 pm


    “[character] said/asked” and “said/asked [character]” are both perfectly correct ways to indicate who said or asked something. It is perfectly correct to use both word orders in the same book (or chapter. Or page. Not paragraph…but in a line of verse, yes.)

    “I won’t go with you” she said, said she,
    and she turned her back as he leapt in the sea.

    This CE seems to think one of them is wrong and blithely reversed the order I had. Didn’t even query. I had it that way for a reason. And besides, it’s not wrong, so even if the CE prefers the other way, there’s no justification for changing it.

    There’s more but I’ll spare you. (Dramatic back of hand to forehead: “One of us must suffer but there’s no need for you…”)

    I think I’ll go out in the field and kick some rocks around. Otherwise I’d be kicking something else around. I’m not even to page 50…

  • Comment by Naomi — May 14, 2011 @ 4:57 pm


    Oooh, I’m cross on your behalf! how dare a CE tamper with your work, penalty should be to read Chaucer in old English… I think you need to get hold of Editor and set out YOUR rules – includingdon’t tamper with your work, don’t give you orders!!!

  • Comment by Chris — May 16, 2011 @ 2:19 am


    I think many CE’s are frustrated writers: since, for whatever reason, they’ve not found their place as a writer, when copy-editing someone else’s work the impulse to “make this part just a bit ‘better'” becomes overwhelming. In some small way, they want part of the credit for actually writing the book.

    To be fair, many who attempt to re-write a sentence or passage may *not* feel that way. Consider, there may be authors out there (I don’t know who they are, but given that publishing is a business, I’m sure there’s someone who has “made it” not on ability, but rather via connections) who aren’t so skilled, and perhaps rely on CE’s to improve their writing.

    Or perhaps the CE’s boss gave expectations not only for the CE to do normal typo and continuity catches, but also to do some significant re-writes of the material—especially if they’re working with many first-time authors. (And that’s not saying all beginning authors would need this kind of help; just that some of the bosses might *think* they need that help regardless of the writer’s actual skill level.)

    In either case, if the CE’s had a lot of that work, or if their boss has put that expectation upon them, they may well be in a rut of doing so even when it isn’t needed… or they might think their job hinges on doing them it.

    In other words, some may do it out of habit or because of their boss’s expectations… and some may do it because, as I’ve heard before, “an editor isn’t happy until they’ve p**d in it themselves,” and they see themselves in that role.

    Regardless, I think you’re a terrific writer, and I’m sorry that you’ve been hit with a “Murphy’s Law” CE. If the person simply *must* suggest a re-wording or re-write of a sentence or paragraph, they ought to be doing so in sidebar notes as a question to you, NOT re-writing the actual text. They are your CE, *not* your co-author and *not* your editor. Sigh.

    I’d also like to take this chance to thank you for returning to the Paks books: I’ve been watching for years to see if you would, and literally jumped up and down in the bookstore (to the vast amusement of the other patrons) when I spotted “Kings of the North” on the shelf. About halfway through it, I realized I’d probably missed a book; sure enough, I checked online and found I’d missed “Oath of Fealty,” so I’m delighted to backtrack and catch what I missed!

    I’m also very happy that you’re not only continuing the story through so many terrific established characters, but also uncovering what happened in Old Aare, fleshing out the other Northern Kingdoms, etc. I eagerly await “Echoes of Betrayal!” Thank you!

  • Comment by Carolyn Rau — May 16, 2011 @ 2:21 pm


    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at you not having access to your CE but I am. Shocked actually. I do a little bit (just for my husband!) and I can’t imagine not checking what he meant. His job is very technical and engineering and they use common words in uncommon ways, as you do, but you’re the way better writer!

    Blech and blech again, as Calvin says.

    We humans really do know how to mess each other up.

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 16, 2011 @ 10:07 pm


    Working on the copy edits today, I found myself in slightly more sympathy with the CE, though he has quirks just as I do–only different ones. He does not like the form “said/asked X” at all. He has little ear for nuances, and some of his corrections are wrong (according to the dictionary. He’s a pure formalist on punctuation, including within dialogue, something I think is ridiculous: punctuation in dialogue can convey how the character speaks the words, if you let it. Speaking the dialogue aloud makes that clear. Still, he made some good catches. I’ve taken his marks where I can. After consulting with Editor, the things in blue are Editor’s, and therefore I let those alone. There’s not time to rewrite and then recheck with Editor.

  • Comment by Naomi — May 17, 2011 @ 2:54 am


    I received the following which makes the point about punctuation:
    An English professor wrote the words:

    “A woman without her man is nothing”
    on the chalkboard and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.
    All of the males in the class wrote:
    “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
    All the females in the class wrote:
    “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
    rather sexist, but it does make the point!

  • Comment by Inge — May 17, 2011 @ 6:26 am


    It’s all about respect: for the language, the imagination, and the author. If a CE doesn’t have that, you, as the author, should have the right to ask for another.

  • Comment by Chris — May 18, 2011 @ 8:24 pm


    I have sudden and complete sympathy for both sides, since I find that my new job (in its third week) is not only expecting me to edit, but to suggest editorial policies. I spent nearly an hour today proposing (with statistics) how we should handle word combinations like “hand weeding” (one word, vs. hyphenated, vs. two words with no hyphen).

  • Comment by elizabeth — May 18, 2011 @ 9:51 pm


    It is difficult to impossible (I think) to set a policy for a whole publishing company when the kinds of books being published are varied. For instance, in general nonfiction, where you have no dialogue, a strict interpretation of punctuation rules can produce a house “style.”

    But in fiction–and especially in speculative fiction–punctuation has more than one purpose. In narrative, it makes the meaning clear, even there it is one tool for controlling pace. In dialogue, punctuation helps convey character and tension by revealing how the words are said.

    The rules are still a guideline, of course. Starting sentences with a period and ending them with a capital letter would be merely freakish, not communication. But strict adherence to the rules–any style guide’s rules–limits the writer’s flexibility exactly where it needs to be greatest.

  • Comment by Maggie — May 29, 2011 @ 10:48 pm


    I LOVE copy editing. Is that weird? I have a journalism background but I really like helping a writer make their work even stronger without destroying their voice. As a writer myself, too, I’ve had editors completely change the way I specifically wrote a story. It’s awful. I’d love to have a crack at one of your books at some point, if that’s even a possibility.

  • Comment by Charles Canter — June 24, 2011 @ 11:48 pm


    I’ve done similar work to a CE with graphic novels; and I must say, while the people I worked with encouraged us to point out things that seemed odd, we were to do so strictly in an appended file, or within margins. To simply change an artists words without warrant is audacious and arrogant. You have my sympathies. I would no more condone someone putting words in a Purgen’s mouth than I would someone adulterated my independent art.

  • Comment by Charles Canter — June 24, 2011 @ 11:51 pm


    Ah, adulterate. An example of me relying too much on Chrome’s spell-check.

  • Comment by RW Schaefer — July 10, 2011 @ 4:50 am


    I have no experience with CEs. Yet, I cannot side with any who would blithely oppose Elizabeth without her agreement or capitulation.
    You see, I cannot read women authors (in fiction, anyhow). Their style, pacing, logic, comparisons quickly blast me out of any suspension of disbelief.
    There are/have been 3 exceptions. It started with Danielle Steele, and I consumed everything she published for many years. Then I discovered Elizabeth Gage, which I suspect is another pen name, and I can read anything from her with ease and joy.
    Then I came upon a paperback copy of Once a Hero – I think used – and became enthralled with Elizabeth Moon. Kept finding more of the Suiza volumes, then found the pre-Suiza trilogy, the Vlatta, and finally ran across Sheepfarmers Daughter in a used bookstore. After that, got a copy of DoP – probably ordered it – and then also LoG. I got some Vlatta and the last few Suiza in hardcover, avoiding any wait.
    I have numerous hardcovers of men authors, have little interest in waiting to read a good book. I read many books, but women authors only number 3, and I know many other men who cannot read fiction by women, and for the same reasons (but I’ve gotten many of them hooked on Elizabeth) So, for me, Elizabeth has a talent which apparently cannot be measured by the publishing world, or else they would have patented the formula and quit printing so much of the rubbish I see on the bestsellers shelf.
    I cannot think of a greater compliment to bestow, so I hope it is taken in the vein intended. Because of this, I think the CE should be directed to work sparingly, and changes made only with Elizabeth’s consent – she should have the right of final edit.

    Semper Fi.

  • Comment by Wanda Robertson — July 10, 2011 @ 1:03 pm


    Although I’ve always wanted to be a writer, that’s probably why I’m NOT a good writer. I have too much of the CE mentality, I think, LOL. I’m a great reader though 😉

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