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Shall I Drive This Writer Crazy? A Copy Editor Decides

Photo courtesy of Jonathan

Although I may have a reputation for breaking the rules, when I set out to copy-edit a manuscript, my default tactic is to follow the stylebook until I have a reason not to. It’s the most sensible way to work. Since few writers are consistent in their stylings, few will object when I favor our house style and edit their departures from it accordingly.

Occasionally, however, a writer is relentlessly, reliably consistent in violating a style rule. And inevitably, I don’t notice the consistency until I’m a good way into the manuscript. After 80 or 100 pages, it dawns on me that I’ve been changing the same thing over and over … and over … and that the writer has never once diverged from the antistyle. Which suggests that the writer really likes it the way he wrote it.

What to do?

If the writer is flat-out wrong, I simply plug on with editing the error. This is rare. There aren’t that many flat-out mistakes that an educated writer will make consistently throughout a manuscript, as opposed to just flaking out here or there—although you might be surprised. For instance, one of my writers always put the period outside the parentheses, even when it belonged inside. (This is an example). Another writer always put a space before a semicolon and never after ;like that—no doubt the result of a find-and-replace operation that ran amok.

When the writer’s preferences are different from mine, but not actually wrong, I have to pause. It happened today. (You guessed that.) My current writer loves commas even more than I do, and he loves to join two independent clauses with a conjunction immediately followed by something parenthetical—but he never puts a comma before the conjunction, and he always sets off the parenthesis with commas. There are many, many such sentences: Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette and, keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38. When she heard the switchblade open against her neck, she froze but, for the first time in her life, she knew what to do. (OK, that’s not exactly what I was editing today; I changed it slightly to protect the perp.)

About 80 pages into the manuscript, I realized that I had shifted such commas many, many times. The writer had not varied from this formula, and every time I saw it, I changed it: Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette, and keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38. When she heard the switchblade open against her neck, she froze, but for the first time in her life, she knew what to do.

I would like this to be a right-or-wrong situation. I can defend my editing: It’s conventional to put a comma before a conjunction joining two independent clauses. The writer could counter that when the clauses are short, the comma may be omitted. He could also argue that it’s conventional to set off parentheticals with commas. To which I could say, extrapolating from rules about double conjunctions (and if, that if*), that it’s not necessary to express the first comma if the parenthetical follows a conjunction. A third party might argue for even more commas: Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette, and, keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38. When she heard the switchblade open against her neck, she froze, but, for the first time in her life, she knew what to do.

Ultimately, what is editing but an endless series of little switchblades against the neck? I had to think fast: A good copy editor doesn’t waste time. Should I continue to impose my preferred style, or put everything back? Either way, assuming the original was consistent, I risked introducing inconsistency. But putting everything back would also be time-consuming. And maybe consistency was uncalled for in the first place.

Like Sal Friday, I knew what to do.

What I don’t know (yet) is how the writer will feel about it.

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*Words Into Type, p. 196; CMOS 6.32; Strunk & White, p. 5 (section 4).

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Readers with questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing may e-mail Carol at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com.

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