On copy-edits

Copyediting 2

I have survived. I live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is – a tale of high-jinx, of derring-do and of rescuing suspiciously busty maidens from suspiciously inconvenient places.

I am, of course, lying. It is a tale of sitting in front of the computer and using Twitter to distract myself from all the thinking.

Here are a few little reflections on the copy-editing process, but before we can dive straight in I should clarify: there were three people involved in the process. I was one, the editor was the second and the copyeditor the third.

The editor works for the publisher and is responsible for overseeing the word-side of my novel (and, I think, that of the rest of the imprint). The copyeditor is a freelancer who was sent my manuscript to seek out errors great and small. I never had any contact with the CE; it all went through the editor. And here is what I now know:

  • There are many types of error:
    • Typos
    • Grammatical errors or mistakes of clarity (who’s talking? Does this modifier refer to this or that or the other?)
    • Continuity errors
    • Errors of taste or discretion
    • Bad writing
  • Typos happne. They can be shrugged aside. So can grammatical errors (you were tired at the time; it was late and that thing you like was about to happen – you know, the one that leaves you all distracted). Continuity errors are worse as they actually have to go back through the MS to find the original reference and decide which to change. Occasionally you’ll have to think and no-one wants that
  • But these are nothing on matters of taste and discretion. See this soul-tearing post from a few weeks back as evidence. Actually, don’t. I’d rather forget the whole sorry saga, thank you. Why’d you have to bring it up anyway?
  • Bad writing is the worst, though. You’ve been through however many edits; you’ve got it past numerous gatekeepers and you did it with this piece of shit? Rereading your own work, especially in this forensic detail, often makes it impossible to see what’s actually good about your work
  • And this leads to more doom: do you try and improve your manuscript? Will you just be annoying your editor by making last-minute, unnecessary changes? If the copyeditor didn’t comment on a particular sentence, is it not just irritating to dismantle it and reinsert upside-down?
  • You need a copyeditor to assess your copyedits
stet

A Google image search failed to identify an artist for this, but you can get it on a mug here; the designer’s listed as Shonda Smith

  • Copyeditors are great: they spot things you’ve never even begun to think about considering. But they’re not perfect. They have their own oddities and prejudices. Mine (whose name I don’t know) seems to have a weird thing about commas. They’ll insert them where I’m damn sure they’re not necessary
  • My biggest fear is that I’ll disappoint my editor. This is stupid, but it bears saying. I am afraid to ask him questions; I don’t want to appear amateurish or needing constant hand-holding. Your editor is always on your side, though; they want your book to succeed as much as you do
  • This has been my first real experience of producing work to a deadline since university. It was a challenge, and in the end I missed it by a few days, despite working evenings. Fortunately my editor is on Twitter and saw some of my more desperate pleas for help and emailed me to see how I was going. This gave me the chance to explain that a) I was just being melodramatic for the purposes of comic effect and b) yes, the deadline was a challenge. Which leads me to the following conclusions:
    • Good communication really, really helps
    • Try and get as much info as possible at the beginning: what has the copyeditor been told? What edition are you editing? I started without knowing that I was specifically working on a US release, which caused me some confusion
    • Be careful what you put on Twitter
    • If you have a problem or an issue with the editor’s/copyeditor’s ideas you should flag it as soon as possible
  • US and British English really are two different languages. One of the hardest things for me was seeing all my usage of ‘whilst’ being changed to ‘while’, even when it was plainly wrong. Also ‘homely’ has different meanings depending on which side of the pond you are
  • All these people really want to make your book better

This has been uncharted territory for me. This may just be a brief lacuna before another wave of work washes me away, but for now I am mopping my brow, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting up the metaphorical cigarette of post-coitality.

The copy-edits are done. I am a step closer to being a published author.

Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.