Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pitfalls and Pratfalls of Editing

We recently had an interesting discussion at the Blood Red Pencil office -- yes, we do have an office, which is actually a list where we meet virtually (or is that virtually meet?) to discuss topics, scheduling, etc. And here you thought we just flew by the seat of our pants, didn't you?

Anyway, in this thread, we talked about the fact that some of the basic standards of editing that used to be the norm across the board of publishing - The Chicago Manual of Style - The AP Stylebook - the UPI Stylebook - and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White are no longer adhered to as strictly as they used to be.

The issue was raised about what happens when an independent editor makes manuscript changes and the author submits to a publishing house and the house editor comes back and makes conflicting editorial changes.

Good question.

I noticed in the recent line-editing of my mystery, Open Season, which will be released by Five Star Cengage /Gale in December, that they are following the strict use of commas to offset phrases. The editor who worked on the book before I submitted it to Five Star did not. For example "… did little to brighten the place up but, hey, it was home."

The first editor took the first comma out and that put a stronger pause on "hey". The copy editor at Five Star put the comma back.

While that may be more grammatically correct, I prefer it the other way. Maybe because I'm an actress, so the delivery of lines is important, and I find that line awkward when said with two pauses.

Here at The Office, another question was raised. What if this editing conundrum happens with an author one of us has edited and that author comes back and complains that she paid for services NOT rendered?

Well, actually, services were rendered, and just because the second editor had a different approach to style doesn't negate what the first editor did. In the case of my book, I think my first editor gave me what I paid for even though the second editor took issue with comma usage. My first editor helped me strengthen characters, tighten the plot, and weed out unnecessary wordage, and I ended up with a better book. Comma usage or not.

Some people think that with so many independent publishers cropping up, the editing standards seem to be blurring even more. That may be true to a point. But I know from my experience with a few NY publishers that each house there had small variances in their style standards. Some used the Chicago manual, others the AP, and a few made me wonder what manual they used.

As authors and editors, I think the best approach is to recognize that nothing is cast in stone, especially not our work. The publishing houses have the last say in how books are edited and formatted, and we would save a lot of hair-pulling if we just let the little things go. That way we can fight for the big things that matter more in a story than where the comma is.

What has your experience been? How do you handle conflicting edits?
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has been on both sides of the editing table and appreciates a good editor. Visit Maryann's Web site for information about her editing services and her books. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play farmer on her little ranch in East Texas.

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  1. Interesting post; how this works in the world of fiction writing.

    I have similar problems and challenges when writing science papers; first with 3 reviewers who often have different opinions (on both science content and writing styles), then with the associate edior, and finally with the copy editor who only looks at language and style. The copy editor usually improves the language, I admit (English is not my first language). However, sometimes the langauge editing introduces changes in content (e.g. conclusions), which I cannot accept ... no wonder it takes forever to get these damn papers printed and published >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  2. Excellent post, Maryann. A freelance editor does so much more than check grammar. You're right, there are always quirks between freelance editors and editors in different houses. And I say, yay!


  3. These days punctuation and grammar, especially in fiction, seem to be more about voice and style than technical accuracy. The rules are getting blurry.

    If I do a first read on a manuscript, I always tell the author that no matter how many suggestions I make, a publisher's editor may see things differently. As a matter of fact, any two agents or editors may disagree. It's still best for the author to use a professional reader or editor before submitting to an agent or publisher.

  4. I've found when there are conflicts between "house" style and freelance editors, I usually go with the flow, unless the flow somehow interferes with the rhythm of my work. I've been lucky enough in my 12 books to almost always have editors who understand and respect the quirks of individual writer's voices. And in the case of the times when I wasn't that lucky, I've spent the time to explain what works best with my particular writing voice. So far, that's charmed my editors. ;~)

  5. Susan, charm works well with editors. I've even had clients charm me. :-)

    The important thing to keep in mind is that style does - or should - rule when it comes to fiction. For instance many mysteries are written with sparse wordage and often incomplete sentences. A grammatical nightmare for an editor who only looks at proper usage.

    And to me, rhythm is the key to style. What breaks the rhythm isn't right even if an English teacher says so. :-)

  6. That happens. I think different people can have different view on how to "manipulate" the language.

    In Quest of Theta Magic

  7. Two editors sitting next to each other in the same publishing house will add and remove the same commas in a manuscript. More important are the house rules regarding treatment of numbers and internal dialogue and other such things. Every publishing company has its own quirks, usually established by whoever is in charge at the moment.

  8. I'd go with the person who represents whatever publisher I have a contract with, unless the difference doesn't make much sense. Then I'd have to politely ask the editor to reconsider.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. I actually find it a huge relief to know standards vary. I have a journalism degree, and was SURE I knew most of my stuff, but have had first readers make certain changes. I think so long as we are consistent on some of this stuff, so they can tell we are following an acceptable standard, rather than not having a clue... then we yield to whoever the decision maker is on what we end up doing in the end...

  10. My day job is as a chief copy editor, and one of the first things I emphasize with staff members is that "style" is not a moral issue. Little is absolute right and wrong; rather, most style calls are simply matters of internal consistency. On debatable points, houses should simply weigh the evidence, make a call and stick to it.

    If you happen to be in the unenviable position of establishing style at a publishing house, my advice is to read widely and not be too dogmatically beholden to any single bible. "The Elements of Style" is often useful. It's also a contradictory, wrongheaded mess. Same with AP. (Though, I must say, my biggest gripe with AP is not necessarily its positions but its utter inability to reflect those positions in its own copy. But I digress.)


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