Sunday, May 05, 2013

Editorial intimacy

I just received my copyedited book manuscript from the publisher. It's humbling. But awesome. But also humbling.

I'm lucky to be working with a press that still does real copyediting, as many now do not--and since I used to work in academic publishing, I take a geeky pleasure in reading through the copyedits and learning the right way to cite a particular kind of source or discovering that someone caught my inconsistent capitalization of a particular term and standardized it. Though I'm surely fussier about consistency and formatting than the average writer, I know I'm not a professional. It's reassuring to have someone else scrutinizing every sentence, every usage, and every punctuation mark.

At the same time, that scrutiny involves a peculiar intimacy:

-Your copy editor knows all your darkest secrets, including exactly how often you begin a sentence with "However" or "But although." Worse, he wants you to change. Why can't he just love you the way you are?

-Your copy editor flags and rewrites any unusual turns of phrase. Some of them are genuinely better his way. But others--you think, defensively--have a better rhythm or effect as originally written.

-But you don't want to be that writer: the academic who believes herself to have a marvelous, original style and clings to her irritating tics and precious locutions.

-And when it turns out that your copy editor is someone you know and like and used to work with--a very experienced senior editor whose first query bubble is actually a sweet little note re-introducing himself and congratulating you on the book? Well, you really can't write him off as some fussbudget in a green eyeshade.

Guess it's lucky I have a blog audience on whom I can continue to inflict my worst writerly indulgences and bad habits.


Renaissance Girl said...

So fast! That's awesome! Excited to see the finished product.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

"But although."


Steven Pierce said...

Congratulations! But on not being *that writer*, I had the same response. Seven years later, there's still one sentence I regret not having insisted on keeping. I still think about it in the middle of the night...

tony grafton said...

My father--a longtime newspaper columnist and editor--used to say, "Professors hate being edited. Writers love it. Which are you?"

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

RE tony grafton's comment: YES! I love having my writing ripped apart. If I ask someone for feedback, and the person says, "oh, that's good. Nice," I'm kind of offended.

It's very nice that this press still has this service for you. I feel like copy editing is a dying art.

Flavia said...


That's a great way of putting it. The vanity of many academics about their style is indeed a sign of thin-skinned insecurity--as it is among many would-be (but less dedicated & perhaps talented) creative writers.

The best writers want to be better writers.

Susan said...

I think it's better to care about writing (even when you have an exaggerated sense of your skill) than to say - as some young colleagues did when I mentioned someone's writing- well, we're historians, what do you expect? GOOD WRITING!

But getting well edited is a real gift....

Miriam said...

My own experiences with prickly writers when I was working at Mod. Phil. have left me inclined to say "yeah, sure" whenever a copyeditor wants to change something. "Ma'am, you committed three grammatical errors in the space of A SINGLE SENTENCE. You're complaining that we fixed it?!" (The person in question behaved so badly that I later elected *not* to apply for a job in her department...)

Flavia said...


Oh, I agree that academics should care about their writing--but I think that those who think their writing doesn't matter (because the ideas are so good, or because their ideas mandate complicated, torturous constructions) are actually very near kin to those who have a vain over-attachment to their style.

But it's also possible that there's some disciplinary difference here: literary scholars can have a complicated relationship to literary style (or are failed/aspiring novelists, etc.).


That's a story I suspect I need to hear with all the incriminating details restored.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that "Precious Locutions" would be an AWESOME name for a cute little store in a mall somewhere. I don't know what they'd sell, though. Witty greeting cards?