Sunday, April 13, 2014

Copyedit Hell

By Kristi Belcamino

When I received the copyedited version of Blessed are the Dead this last week it was super exciting. Here was my baby all laid out pretty with my name and the dedication up front like a real book. Woohoo! A dream come true.

But that excitement soon faded as I sat down to look at what the copyeditor had done. My task involved reviewing every sentence highlighted in purple to indicate the copyeditor had made a change. I needed to look at the change and either accept it or reject it.

It didn’t take me long to realize that nearly every page of my 297 page novel had some purple on it. That’s cool, I told myself. I love editors. I am the biggest fan of editors because nine times out of ten they make you look better than you really are. True story.

But as I read on, I realized I much prefer working with my HarperCollins editor versus working on changes from a contracted copy editor. I’m sure he or she is a lovely person. And it’s obvious he or she is extremely talented, catching so many little things I didn’t. But I can’t deny what soon became glaringly obvious in reading the changes — I don’t have a clue how to use a comma. Really.

Even though I’ve had a career as a newspaper reporter and have written three novels, this basic skill has somehow eluded me for 40-some years.


It wasn’t easy coming to this realization. I mean, at first, I denied it, telling myself, “Well, the copyeditor obviously likes commas more than me.”

But that is probably less likely than the fact that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to comma use.


As I went on, I saw that probably 98 percent of the edits from the copyeditor were adding or subtracting a comma. Mostly adding.

Thank God, the publisher contracts this work out and I don’t have to face this copyeditor in person one day, hanging my head in shame. (By the way, is that comma I just used in the right place? Now I’m doubting each and every comma I use!)

So, the comma thing was the toughest part of being copyedited.

But there were some fun parts, as well. Heck, I’d even call them educational.

For instance, I learned all kinds of cool things about some of my favorite words.

I learned that “douche bag” is actually two words. Who knew?

Here are some others you might not know or realize:

Goddamn - one word
Barstool - one word.
Supertight – one word
Wineglass – one word

And by the way, hard-asses is hyphenated.

I, also, got a little education on the word “nod.”

I’ll share it with you as a helpful hint of the day just in case you didn’t know. (Although there is a good chance everyone else on the planet knows this but me, but in the off chance there is one other person who doesn’t know this, well here you go.):

You can only nod your head. You can’t nod any other body part. You don’t nod your foot, only your head. So saying someone nods his head = Redundant. (And possibly ignorant, when it comes down to it.) Who knew? Oh yeah — everyone but me.

You nod. Not your head. You just simply nod.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The further along in the copyedits, the less intelligent I felt. Hell, I don’t even know if “further” is the right word anymore? Is it farther? See, I’ve lost any ability to write at all. My worst fear has finally happened.

I’m, also, starting to wonder if the copyeditor ended up hating me by the end of the novel. I mean, maybe he or she was so disgusted by my flagrant misuse of commas that by the end of the manuscript, he or she was seething with resentment and irritation. I can just imagine him or her at the bar after a day spent copyediting my novel, telling a friend, “Man, I’ll be so glad to get done with this novel because that writer doesn’t know a comma from a hole in the ground.”

At the same time, I’m incredibly grateful that this expert — this person who is smart about commas — is making my book look so —well — smart.

Hey, here’s a little hint for any other writers out there who feel like they might be getting a little cocky or arrogant or thinking they are too cool – just have a copyeditor read your novel! Voila! Suddenly, you will slip right off your high horse and join the rest of us hacks. You might even feel a little bit of writing insecurity creep up you because after all, the truth is you really have no clue how to use a comma. Wait — that’s just me.


Thomas Pluck said...

Ha, there are so many rules. That's why we have copyeditors. Is that one word? Spellcheck made it red. (Spellcheck is also red).
I plan on a length argument over the difference between "son of a bitch" and "sonofabitch" (inflection!) and whether "shitbird" is one word or two... but I'll fight those to the end. I learned that "offramp" is "off-ramp" and so on...

Kristi said...

See, Thomas this is why I like you so much.

I was told HarperCollins style is copyeditor, which is why I wrote it that way, but what I'm quickly learning is that different houses have different style guides -- on commas and so on.

PS I'm all for sonofabitch!
PSS I'm reading Under the Dome by Stephen King and I LOVE his swearwords. I think he would totally argue for sonofabitch!

Susan L. Lipson, Author & Writing Teacher said...

Voice and style--which you display vividly--overshadow a few commas! I was a copyeditor in the '80s, and misplaced or missing commas were the least of the problems I saw. I found, in a professor's book, this "word" throughout: "their's." I hesitate to tell people that I was a copyeditor because they might ridicule my errors! Oops, I just told!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Thomas, oddly enough, book publishers seem to prefer copyeditor, one word, while newspapers prefer copy editor. I've edited both, so I call myself a copy-editor.

Kristi, I'm not sure if you indulged in any leg-pulling in that post, but barstool and supertight one word? What dictionary did your copyeditor use? Where? In what dialect?
On the other hand, the dictionary my newspaper uses insists that the seat behind where the driver sits in a car is the backseat(sic), one word.

Douchebag is an interesting case. In the sense in which most people use it, it's clearly one word, but the lexicographers probably considered its old, literal meaning. You made the right call, but it's hard to blame a copy editor if the publisher's preferred dictionary is out of date. So the copy-editor made the right call, too.

Don't beat yourself up about commas. There is division in this matter, too. Which of the following is correct? Depends if your style guide calls for the "Oxford comma":

She writes crime, romance, and science fiction.

She writes crime, romance and science fiction.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

Thomas, inflection is also the key in re douchebag. A bag that contains a substance for cleansing a body cavity is a douche bag. A person (certain ones, anyhow) is a douchebag. I am confident that if I ever copyedit any of your books, I'll have no trouble with douchebags and shitbirds.

Kristi said...

Thanks Susan! So fun to see you on here!
And Peter, after a career as a journalist, when I began to write fiction I trained myself to use the extra comma in a series, so I was safe there. The commas were added in other places. Oh well!

Al Tucher said...

Oh, terrific. I had just surrendered to the single-comma-in-the-series-of-three after fighting it for years.

(And I almost forgot the comma after "Oh."

Dana King said...

I had comments about douchebag and sonofabitch, but they were handled before I got here, and better than I would have.

I understand houses have their own style guides, but it is the writer's style that should prevail when differences occur. As Raymond Chandler once famously wrote, re: a copy editor (Peter must be sick of seeing this posted by me again):

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

Kristopher said...

This post brings to mind the first line of the great Vampire Weekend song:

"Who gives a F%#! about an Oxford Comma?"

But I totally get where you are coming from Kristi. Whenever I edit my blog posts, I am always having to debate in my head about some of the commas. Alas, I do not have a copyeditor (copy editor, copy-editor), so I know mistakes get through. I just have to do my best. ;)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I wonder if that famous Chandler passage may have done more harm than good. The writer's style should prevail when differences occur--if, in fact, that writer has a style. Not all writers do.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Kristi, where did your copy editor stick those commas? None of my comments should be taken as arguing that there's no such thing as a tin-eared, ham-fisted copy editor.

Kristi said...

Thanks for weighing in everyone. Your comments cracked me up. As for where the copyeditor inserted commas, at this point, I have no clue. I stopped paying attention. After the first 10 pages I was on autopilot hitting "accept change" over and over again. (when you can't beat 'em, join 'em)
AND KRISTOPHER _- What was I thinking? That Vampire Weekend Song title would have been the best title for this post EVER!