Copy Edits We Have Known and Hated, Part 2

- by Laura Resnick

rrr2As previously discussed here, a copy editor’s job is to correct errors in grammar, spelling, usage, consistency, and continuity, and to ensure that a writer’s manuscript adheres to the publishing house’s standard style choices in terms of spelling and punctuation.

The ideal copy edit is a helpful one, or at least an unmemorable one. Today’s blog, however, is about the other kind…

I don’t know if some copy editors are frustrated aspiring writers or just cruel tormentors who enjoy elevating other people’s blood pressure. And more than a few copy editors seem to be remarkably incompetent amateur historians.

In one of my favorite examples, the copy editor changed the names of the songs in Alice Duncan’s Civil War romance, Wild Dream. Thus, the musician hero found himself playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” instead of “The Battle Cry of Freedom”-suddenly changing sides in the war without warning.

In a novel about the theft of JFK’s limousine, Randy Russell wrote a description of JFK’s driver’s license, the information taken straight from a copy of Kennedy’s actual license as it appeared in a biography; the copy editor changed JFK’s hair color. In a historical romance novella set in Naples, Mary Jo Putney was obliged to produce a printed folk recipe from her research when the copy editor protested, “That dish doesn’t have raisins!” When a copy editor insisted on writing a herd of buffalo into a character’s thoughts, Jo Beverley had to explain that a herd of buffalo wouldn’t be the first (or fifth) image to occur to an English Regency heroine.

Nor are such problems the exclusive burden of historical novelists. Carol Cail set a contemporary novel in the Utah desert and soon found her rustic barbed wire fence changed by the copy editor to chain link. In a Dixie Browning book, the copy editor had never heard of “drum fishermen” and changed it to “drunken fishermen.” In another novel, Dixie used the old phrase “kicking over the traces,” and the copy editor asked, “Traces of what?” Contemporary romance writer Susan Mallery had a copy editor who was mystified by the real-life Los Angeles advertising campaign (“L.A.’s the place!”), which is repeated in the book, and wanted to know, “The place for what?” Another copy editor working on a manuscript by bestselling author Pat Rice decided that the heroine wasn’t taking the right route into the city and changed it. “Even though,” Pat says, “I live here and knew exactly where I was going, and she didn’t.”

One copy editor wrote a vitriolic letter to the book’s editor in which she castigated the author for her appalling sensibility in forcing the Regency heroine to adopt her husband’s title after their marriage. The copy editor offered many alternatives that were more “sensitive” and reflected the individuality of the heroine-including a title that would, in fact, imply that the heroine was her husband’s sister, and another which was his mother’s title! According to the author, “The copy editor… had absolutely no concept of British titles and forms of address and clearly thought the author had made them up.”

On the other hand, sometimes the author does just make things up; in a traditional fantasy novel, the author is allowed-nay, expected!-to make up stuff. So I was bewildered to find words and phrases which I had made up-which existed nowhere except in my imagination and the manuscript of In Legend Born-”corrected” by the copy editor. For example, I would have thought it was obvious that if I referred to a completely fictional ethnic group, one which exists solely in my fantasy world, as the “sea-born folk” more than one hundred times, the copy editor would realize that I meant “sea-born folk” and would not feel compelled to change it, every single damn time, to “sea borne folk.” Thereby causing me to write “stet” more than one hundred times when I received the copy edit. (Yes, there is a good reason that writers buy stet stamps.)

The final installment of this satisfying rant against bad copy edits will appear in my next blog here.

(Adapted from Rejection, Romance, & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer)

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