Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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In Which I Sing the Copyeditor Unsung

August 11, 2005

A capable copyeditor is by definition overqualified for the job. A merely qualified copyeditor can correct typos, grammatical gaffes, and names inconsistently spelled from one page to the next; insert punctuation where it is needed and remove punctuation that is downright wrong. These tasks are sometimes called "mechanical," but you've ever, in naïveté or in a rush, left them up to a machine -- i.e., your computer's spelling or grammar checker -- you know that sooner or later the machine will leave you looking like a bloody idiot. Like other occupations for which overqualification is part of the job description, copyediting pays poorly, and most of us who profess it are of the female persuasion. It does, however, pay better than parenting.

A couple of jobs back, I proofread a wonderfully written book, and all the way through I kept thinking, "This guy deserved a much better copyeditor." Tracking a copyeditor through a manuscript is educational: this is one reason I like proofreading. (Capable proofreaders, need I say, are also by definition overqualified for their jobs.) Knowing that a capable proofreader -- one who's as picky and snarky as I am -- is trailing me through manuscripts I copyedited, however, makes me a little nervous. It has to be like inviting a documentary film crew into your house to discuss your latest Nobel Prize, then your needle-nosy neighbor shows up and within seconds her snide, well-aimed comments have driven you round the bend and over the edge. Thanks to digital video you can watch the replay almost instantly. You decide not to blow your brains out till the camerafolk have left.

Don't get me wrong: perfection is not possible in this business. Capable copyeditors and proofreaders learn humility PDQ. But this copyeditor's goofs were legion. Rose in one paragraph became Rosa in the next. Apostrophes were omitted where they should have been ("its as big as that") and committed in many wrong places ("the Rosicrucian's were known . . .") The distinction between prophesy and prophecy escaped her, as did o're, chieften, and diety. So did Eqypt, but that's a tough catch and I was proud of myself for grabbing it. The perfectly correct parce qu'il was closed up into parcequ'il.

It wasn't the less-than-stellar "mechanics" that turned this proofread into a real teeth-gnasher, however. This author's prose was supple, subtle, lush, eloquent, clear, occasionally impish . . . I read many sentences and some whole paragraphs aloud for the sheer pleasure of hearing them. And he got a copyeditor with a tin ear, a copyeditor who kept afflicting the prose with punctuation it didn't need and transpositions that screwed up the pacing. He stetted many of the changes. (Stet means "let it stand"; it tells the typesetter to ignore the copyeditor's marks and restore the original.) Sometimes his stets -- in red-orange pencil -- were rendered in large caps: I could tell he was pissed. I figured that in his exasperation he was probably letting some stuff pass that he didn't really like, so I restored several originals that were obviously better than the edits.

The barebones copyeditorial job description does not include "must have good ear for the language," but the copyeditor who doesn't have one will have a hard time rising above mere competence. This particular copyeditor's tin ear was compounded by what I like to call "piss-on-fire-hydrant syndrome." It's an occupational hazard for novice editors, who think that if they haven't made significant changes on every page of a manuscript they haven't done their jobs. I'm here to tell you from personal experience that it isn't fatal, and full recovery is possible. The day did come in my editing career when I could gaze upon an almost unmarked manuscript page and feel only awe and profound gratitude for the writer. Then I briefly patted myself on the back for my forbearance and moved on to the next.

 

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