Those damn copy editors*
Oh, you slave over your article or your book, pouring a life’s knowledge into it, sweating blood to achieve shapeliness, like Michelangelo pulling the young David out of a block of marble. It is done. And then you find that some cretinous git, some literal-minded parser, some copy editor has taken your text in his thick fingers and mangled it.
That is pretty much the burden of a recent blog post by someone named Seth Godin:
Just got some work back from a new copyeditor hired by my publisher. She did a flawless job. She also wrecked my work. Totally wrecked it.
By sanding off every edge, removing every idiom, making each and every fact literally correct, she made it boring and dry and mechanical.
If they have licenses for copyeditors, she should have hers revoked.
Unfortunately, Mr. Godin does not supply a single instance of the copy editor’s destructiveness, so it is up for discussion whether he is an injured author or a fulminating boor. (The other texts at his blog do not suggest that revision of his prose would be a cultural catastrophe.)
Of considerably more substance is a comment on a Language Log post, “The food processor of copy editing,” that quotes a letter in which the novelist Joan Aiken complains about a copy editor. “... I have thought quite a number of times about it before I put down ‘“Hark at the wind,” shivered George’ and so have not the least wish to see it changed to ‘“Listen to the wind,” said George with a shiver.’”
A similar indictment was handed up in Jacques Barzun’s “Behind the Blue Pencil” essay, of which I’ve written previously. These are charges that have to be taken seriously.
Of course, this problem is slowly resolving itself as publishers and newspapers shed their copy editors. Who needs them, anyway? They generate no revenue; they just slow things down; they think they have some kind of right to hold an opinion about your work; they always tell you what’s wrong, never what’s right. Besides, they’re a little peculiar.
But it is well to consider that the Princeton University Press has recalled and is reprinting a book by a faculty member of the City University of New York because of an embarrassing quantity of errors in spelling and grammar that were not caught and corrected by the copy editor.
And it might be entered into the discussion that writers are occasionally given to ludicrous effects from which a copy editor can rescue them.
It’s up to the employer — editor, publisher, client — to establish the standards expected of copy editors, including how aggressively the task is to be pursued. It’s up to the copy editor to exercise judgment, not just about the text but also about his or her role.
What have you been commissioned to do? If you’re being told just to check the spelling and keep your opinions to yourself, do that. The kind of shop that tells you that isn’t interested in your opinions anyhow.
What are you working on? Genre counts. If, for example, it’s a novel, you’ll be expected to give the writer more latitude than you would for a newspaper article. Being a copy editor doesn’t mean that you get to sharpen a gross of Eberhard Faber col-erase carmine reds and begin setting Finnegans Wake to rights.
Who’s the author? It matters whether you’re dealing with a veteran or a tyro. God help you if you take the same approach with Jacques Barzun that you do with Seth Godin.
Why aren’t you talking to the writer? You have a telephone, don’t you? E-mail? A desk within a day’s walk of the writer’s? The more extensively you edit, the better it is to maintain some level of contact and consultation with the writer. It’s a working relationship, and relationships require work.
But if you have given these questions due consideration and you’re right, stand your ground. Just remember that no one is always right.
* House style at The Sun discourages even the milder profanities, but I thought that the sentiment expressed here is so universal that the language might be excused.