Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Comma and a Copyeditor

Long ago, I wrote a Writer's Cramps article about how one can never proofread enough. As an example, I used a dratted comma that totally messed up the meaning of a sentence in a short story I had sold. I moaned at my stupidity for overlooking said comma, never checking my original manuscript.

I later found out that I hadn't added that comma, a copyeditor had. It totally changed the meaning of the sentence, and considering that sentence was backstory for my Enaisi series, I was really doing a face-palm. Not to worry, because that story's rights have reverted to me, and I now have that story on my website - corrected of course.

I've worked with copyeditors and have worked as a copyeditor on Ray Gun Revival. I will tell you, a copyeditor's job is not easy. We have to catch typos, fix grammatical and punctuation oopses, check formatting, and if done properly, do so without interfering with the author's voice. The toughest job I've ever done, writing-wise, has by far been copyediting.

Notice the "if done properly" in the above paragraph? I've seen copyeditors who will overlook typos and obvious grammatical errors to correct their personal pet peeves - to the point of totally rewriting paragraphs and destroying an author's voice and the tone of the scene.

The biggest, baddest story I've ever heard of "copyeditor hell" belongs to Piers Anthony. He contracted with a publisher to write a book in the '70s called But What of Earth? Long story short, the editor gave the book to a team of copyeditors who played god with it - changing the story, the characters' personalities and motivations, just totally ripping it to shreds, then they gave it to another writer who wrote up all the changes. The editor then published the book with both writers' names. When Anthony found out, he had a cow and went after them legally - since he had a contract for the book *he* wrote not some vaguely familiar thing "co-authored" by him and this other writer. (The other writer, for his part, didn't know what the editor was up to - he was sort of caught in the middle.)

If you want to read the whole shebang, Piers Anthony re-released the book some years ago with many of the notes of the copyeditors as footnotes. From an author's viewpoint, it's frightening to read those notes. Those copyeditors went far beyond their job description.

So the book tells two stories, the original story Anthony wrote (which is worth a read), and the publishing story. Every author and copyeditor should read this book, so authors know what to watch for, and so copyeditors can see the power-trip trap they (hopefully) don't want to fall into.

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