I just finished reviewing my copyedited manuscript and I learned a valuable lesson: I am a hack writer.
It has absolutely nothing to do with the copyeditor herself; she was professional and unobtrusive on the page. And before we go any further I want to say that based on her handwriting you, too, would have leaped to the conclusion that she was a woman, so don’t scold me.
Anyway, she marked the manuscript—a hard copy, which slightly horrified my friend, the Subversive Copy Editor—with clean red pencil marks, and any comments that were direct communications were business-like and friendly: things like “OK?” and “To avoid repetition.”
No, what made me feel like a hack were the corrections themselves. I’m supposed to be a writer, after all. I’m supposed to know grammar, and how to punctuate, and how to (for crying out loud) spell.
So why the heck do I use so many em-dashes? Wait, is that actually spelled m-dash? Or perhaps it’s em dash.
And why do I abuse commas so violently?
There are spaces between the periods of ellipses? Now you’re just making stuff up.
But really, how can a supposed writer not know the appropriate context for “into” versus “in,” and “onto” versus “on”? And while we’re at it, why do you hold onto a rock, but you search for something to hold on to? Why do you pull a car in to the lot, but you settle your child into bed? How the heck do foreigners learn this language?
Oh, yeah, I also abuse italics.
Another problem for me is compounding. Here are some words I would have sworn on my grandmother’s grave were made up of two words with a space between them:swimsuit
Here are some words that I was so sure were one word, I might have staked one of my children’s lives on it:gill net
I mean, left overs? That’s seriously two words? GET. OUT. Overs isn’t even a thing!
But there are more substantive issues, too—language I would have screwed up even if I had bothered to open Webster’s Eleventh while I was working. I once wrote a haughty blog post about tic words in young-adult books—they annoy me as a reader and keep me from feeling transported by the prose. And then I noticed little check marks on my manuscript, like snowflakes dancing down the page. It turns out those check marks appear over repeated words. Gah! I hate myself!
At the end of the whole process it was impossible for me not to wonder: did the copyeditor like the book? Did she think I was below or above average in how pathetic my mistakes were? Does she wonder whether I respect her expertise and effort?
I may never know the answer to the first two questions, but if the answer to the third is yes, I have a message for my copyeditor: hoo, boy am I ever grateful for your edits. I feel honored to have someone out there watching my back so carefully, with no recognition other than a small paycheck. Thank you for your thorough work. Thank you for cleaning up my messes. And thank you for saving my face those three times I referred to multiple anglers as “fisherman.”
P.S. Carol Saller did not copyedit this post.
~ ~ ~Elizabeth Fama is my good friend and writing partner. Her young adult novel Monstrous Beauty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Spring 2012) has every promise to be a blockbuster, featuring an ancient mermaid, an eighteenth-century hunk, a modern-day teenager wrestling with a family curse, and . . . well, I don’t want to give anything away before you have a chance to read the book. Meanwhile, I invited her to write about how things are going. —Carol