Copy Edits We Have Known and Hated, Part 3

- by Laura Resnick

rrr3As 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, however, we’re again discussing the other kind of copy edit…

Sometimes copy editors just don’t like the way we write and are evidently convinced they can do it better. And so they try.

Consequently, Joan Johnston (who couldn’t get all the changes changed back in a particular book, alas) disclaims all responsibility if you find a soldier “barking” in one of her books. The poor fellow, through no fault of Joan’s, also blurts and belches a lot of his dialogue, rather than simply saying it.

In a book by another writer, a couple is in the midst of a difficult personal relationship when the hero is suddenly hospitalized after being stabbed. As the heroine looks at his pain-filled face, she reflects on all the important things she should have said to him, and she hopes there’s still time to say these things…or rather she did, until the copy editor crossed it all out and wrote, “She was upset he’d been hurt.”

When Susan Mallery wrote that a character was “feeling lower than a snake’s fanny pack,” the copy editor asked if she was aware that snakes do not wear clothing of any kind.

My favorite example, however, is a copy editor who “corrected” a phrase of Susan Wiggs’ to “she pulled herself across the room by her teeth.” (Is anyone else having a scary mental image now?)

The copy editor of my (by now infamous) Celestial Bodies manuscript clearly felt that I wasn’t wordy and long-winded enough (though Kirkus reviewers have been known to hold the exact opposite view of my work). To give you one example from among many dozens: She altered the phrase “she wanted more than sex from him” to “she wanted more than the feelings of the experience of sex from him.” (I’m not making this up.) Have I mentioned that I sent a hysterical nine-page letter to my editor about that copy edit? Although it was years ago, I still feel headachy whenever I think about it.

You’ll be pleased to know I’ve saved the best story for last. Bestseller Pat Rice tells of a copy edit that got progressively nastier as she worked her way through the manuscript, with the copy editor virtually snarling at Pat’s writing and her characters, going far beyond anything the author had ever before seen a copy editor do to a book. When the copy editor called the heroine “a total ninnyhammer,” Pat put down the manuscript and phoned her editor. Her editor looked into the problem, but the copy editor was no longer available for comment…He’d had a nervous breakdown and had been packed off to a psychiatric hospital! (I sincerely hope he was sharing his room there with the copy editor of Celestial Bodies.)

Although a good copy editor is worth her weight in chocolate, a bad one makes you jumpy about copy edits for the rest of your career. A good copy editor, like a good editor or agent, is a tremendous asset to a writer. A bad copy editor, like a bad editor or agent, is a huge burden to a poor working writer who doesn’t need this kind of senseless aggravation.

(“She wanted more than the feelings of the experience of sex from him.” I ask you, what kind of person writes a phrase like that???)

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

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