[process] Copy edits and manuals of style

I am currently more than halfway through the copy edits of Kalimpura, recently received back from Tor. The manuscript is actually pretty clean, and the copy editor’s queries are both minimal and very much to the point. I’m going to assume this is a good thing, though as [info]calendula_witch recently said to me in a related context, she feels like she’s cheating when she receives a clean manuscript to work on.

However, one thing that has always baffled me is why fiction publishers use manuals of style for copy editing manuscripts. In my case, per the abbreviated notation in the style sheet that accompanied my copy edit, M-W 11th, Chicago 15th, Words into Type, and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

I do understand why some aspects of house style are important, such as getting the ellipses and em dashes correct. That’s a book design and typesetting thing. For example, the style sheet says the following:

“Use this form—” When an action. “—interrupts the speech.”
“Use this form”—when an action occurs simultaneous to speech—“without interrupting it.”

Okay. Fine with me. This is how Tor wants their books to look. Hooray! I’m not a book designer, and I certainly didn’t embed any punctuation geekery in the manuscript I turned into them.

But on usage and spelling…? Fiction is in one important sense all about voice. And there’s a lot of changes that get made in the copy edit that I have to stet. There are certain archaic or non-standard spellings I favor. “Storey” for “story” when describing buildings. “Dreamt” instead of “dreamed”. “Til” instead of “till”. All of which get carefully amended to the current standard written usage, and all of which I just as carefully stet back to my original.

Don’t even get me started on the that/which distinction. The rule about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is a piece of prescriptivism demonstrably at odds with the way people actually use those words, and I personally will deliberately stray from the rule for the sake of smoothness of the reading. (i.e., not creating a clunky string of serial uses of “that” or “which”)

Likewise “who” and “whom”. I know the difference perfectly well, thank you. But almost no one uses “whom” in casual speech, so in dialog my characters don’t, unless they’re the sort of personality who would be either that formal or that persnickety. Also, “they/their” for third person gender indeterminate is a very common usage dating back hundreds of years in English, and really doesn’t need to be corrected.

Oh, and comma splices, I loves me some comma splices when I’m writing fiction. So what? It’s my voice.

Fiction isn’t formally correct, and it shouldn’t be. It should reflect the author’s voice. I can write very formally when I need to. I do it all the time for business writing in the Day Jobbe (though that has its own usages and quirks). I also do some legal writing in the Day Jobbe (disclaimer: I am not an attorney and I do not practice law, I do, however, routinely draft certain contract provisions for our Legal department to review), as well as some technical writing that is distinct from my business writing. I even occasionally do marketing writing there, though less often than I used to. Each of those forms has their distinct speech register, expected norms of usage, and formalisms.

The really great thing about fiction is that you get to craft your own speech registers, your own norms of usage, and your own formalisms. While I definitely need to be internally consistent in style and usage within the text (though I can readily imagine exceptions even to that statement), I don’t need to be consistent to formal usage, so long as I remain clear and comprehensible.

So I’m always puzzled about why publishers instruct copy editors to round off all the interesting bits.

5 thoughts on “[process] Copy edits and manuals of style

  1. I had an argument with the publisher over ’til vs. till doing SPACE BATTLES. I still dislike till a great deal. ’til is short for until. That’s just what makes sense to me. I also use who in dialogue and some of your other points. When I copyedit for others, which I now do freelance, I usually ask the publisher and writer before making those changes to save everyone time. If the publisher insists, that’s one thing, but if not, it’s really just extra work no one needs. But we do get the grammar nazis in this business. Not saying that’s what your copyeditors are, just that I’m NOT one of them. There’s common usage of how people talk, writer’s style, and there’s classroom learning. Even my high school English teacher, who was one of those prim/proper school marm intellectual types, said to me once: “If you use ‘ain’t’ in my classroom, you’ll get an F, but if you don’t talk like that on the street, I’ll give you weird looks like everyone else.”

  2. BJ Muntain says:

    You’re right. It’s all about consistency. All a style guide is, is a resource to check for consistency.

    Have you considered writing up your own style manual for your work, for instance? It’s easy to do in a spreadsheet.

    Then you could provide to your copy editors so they have something to check for consistency? For instance, they come across ‘storey’. House style says ‘story’, but they look at your guide and see ‘storey’, so stet it.

    That way, they can also see ‘story’ used in that context, and know it’s a typo.

    They’re not in your brain. They don’t know all your nuances to make sure everything is consistent throughout your story. Consistency is part of their job – you can make it easier for them to make sure you’re consistent with your own style.

    Of course, if you’ve done this but they still insist on house style, I can’t help you. 🙂

    1. BJ Muntain says:

      Sorry for the choppy grammar. I shouldn’t comment pre-coffee. I’ll try to do better next time.

  3. Matte Lozenge says:

    “The really great thing about fiction is that you get to craft your own speech registers, your own norms of usage, and your own formalisms.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth; that was exactly my response too.

    And it’s a really great thing about fiction, but it’s a super fantastic thing about science fiction. Science fiction gets to invent neologisms, new slang, unusual grammatical patterns (e.g. Yoda), and basically, anything goes. But the writer has have command of the formal rules to break them convincingly.

    Copy editors are operating within a rising tide of quasi-illiteracy. Today it’s a struggle to produce correct grammar, nevermind inventive or experimental forms. Copy editors should have the sensitivity to distinguish that, and I hope it’s not too much to ask these days.

    Have you read Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn? It’s the ultimate revenge against copy editing, I think!

  4. Jaws says:

    They can eliminate my serial commas when they pry the comma keycap off my Northgate keyboard. Fortunately, in the “day job” the style guides all encourage use of the serial comma; unfortunately, in the “day job” the style guides all misuse of semicolons.

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