Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Copyediting Par Excellence

I attended MidSouthCon near Memphis earlier this month, to help launch and promote Andrew Fox's new novel, The Good Humor Man from Tachyon Publications. MidSouthCon planned a "writers track" this year, and the programming staff asked if I would do a workshop, lasting one and a half hours (in addition to a few other panels). I agreed, and then had to think of an appropriate subject. Something that author Mark Teppo had said, when he and I were laying the ground rules for working together on his novel Lightbreaker last year, came to mind. I edit on hardcopy -- that's just how I work; however, when I work directly with an author, I then re-enter all my edits and copyedits from the hardcopy into the author's formatted manuscript file using MS Word's Change Tracking; with Change Tracking the author can easily see both the before and after, and I can enter comment boxes where needed as well. Consequently there is no hardcopy to photocopy and mail (and thus no added expense); the author never sees my hardcopy, only the marked-up e-file. When I explained the process to Mark and asked if he was okay with this, he responded: Track Changes is perfect, and I’m glad that I don’t have to actually go figure out what copyediting marks are. :) [The smiley face was included in Mark's response!] [Note: more blogging to come on Mark Teppo's Lightbreaker, tentatively scheduled for publication from Night Shade Books on April 20.]

So, for MidSouthCon, I proposed a workshop entitled "Learn Copyeditting four Fun and Proft" (typos intentional), with the following description:

You've just received the marked-up galleys of your novel from the publisher. You have less than a week to review these pages and provide feedback. There's so much red ink on the galleys that it looks like the copyeditor was hideously attacked during the editing process! Just what do all those red lines and characters mean?

I created a three-part, sixty-five-page computer presentation, that included ten hands-on exercises for the workshop participants, along with real examples taken directly from the books I have edited over the years -- all of this, as it turned out, for four and a half people (the "one-half" being the person who arrived a half-hour late and left a half-hour early). That was the extent of my workshop participants. So, I thought that I would salvage some of the work I put into this workshop by sharing the finer points of my discussion with readers of this blog.

When I first began editing, and consequently copyediting, I used two reference texts, both published by EEI Press (Editorial Experts, Inc.) in Alexandria, Virginia: Mark My Words by Peggy Smith, 1987, and Substance & Style by Mary Stoughton, 1996; of the two, Substance & Style is the preferred text. EEI has since published The Copyeditors Guide to Substance & Style by the Editors of EEI Press, 2005. Though I've not seen this latter title, I would assume it to be more contemporary in both its presentation and examples. Unfortunately, all three books are out of print, but easily obtainable through the used book market.

When I begin a copyediting project, there are a number of points that I always consider, included among these are:
  • Author’s style
  • Audience
  • American English or British English
  • Consistency,consistency,consistency

If I am working with an author's raw manuscript, I prefer to read it through once to gain a sense of the author's style and rhythm, use of neologisms, the narrative structure versus dialogue, etc. before I begin editing/copyediting. Also, is the book written in British English or American English, and who is the intended audience? Typically, an American publisher will require that a British author's manuscript be copyedited for American English, and vice versa -- and there are significant punctuation and word use differences between the two forms of English (e.g. British English uses a plural verb with a collective noun: "the government are"). And lastly, I can't emphasize enough how critical consistency is throughout a manuscript. I've copyedited a manuscript in which the words "machinegun," "machine-gun," and "machine gun" were used. Personally, I don't care which form is used -- compound, hyphenated, or open -- but I have a need for consistency throughout. So I typically count the number of instances of each form and go with the majority; it saves a lot of wear and tear on ye olde brain. If a word is spelled in equal numbers for each form, I will either copyedit to the correct form per the dictionaries that I use, or else I will query the author as to his or her preference.

But back to American vs. British English. When I was working with British author Charles Stross on his novel The Jennifer Morgue (Golden Gryphon Press, 2006), he had some unique requirements for his manuscript: Since the protagonist, Bob Howard, was a Brit, his dialogue, writing, and narration were to remain in British English (i.e. colloquialisms, word use, etc.), but with American English spelling and punctuation, since the book had been acquired for an American audience; however, Bob's "co-conspirator," Agent Ramona Random, was an American femme fatale (sort of, you'll have to read the book), so her dialogue, writing, and narration were to be strictly American English. This made for an interesting copyediting project!

Another distinction between American and British English is the serial comma. Typically, British authors do not use serial commas whereas American authors do. I prefer the use of serial commas regardless. Gardner Dozois, editor of the annual Year's Best Science Fiction anthology series (this year marks volume twenty-six!), has a wonderful example that showcases the serial comma -- or, should I say, the lack there of. Here is Gardner's book dedication example:

I would like to thank my parents,
God and Ayn Rand.

Obviously, Gardner's parents are not God and Ayn Rand; what's missing here -- as if you didn't know -- is the serial comma that follows "God"; Gardner is actually thanking his parents and God and Ayn Rand. While I was working on this workshop presentation, author Cory Doctorow sent out the following Twitter post on March 17: Hypothesis: consistency in the serial comma ignores questions of prose rhythms and should be ignored when it interferes with same. Of course, using serial commas, or not, is an author's prerogative; I merely ask that the author be consistent, one way or the other. But, if like Cory, you choose prose rhythm over consistency, just be aware of the content of your sentences, and make sure your parents aren't God and Ayn Rand!
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