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The Copyedit from Heck

12 March 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

In late February, I was scrambling to clear the decks for last week’s anthology workshop , I got an email from an editor who had kindly bought one of my stories for a major traditionally published anthology that will appear in November. Attached to the email was the copyedited story, along with a deadline of this week.

No problem. All I had to do was move that copyedit into the proper file on my writing computer so I could work on the manuscript when the workshop was over. However, I have learned that the first thing to do with any file that includes track changes is open the file and make sure the track changes are visible on both my e-mail computer and my writing computer.

I did just that—and hit the ceiling.

Two hours and a lot of invective later, I had completed the copyedit and returned it to the editor at the traditional publishing house, while copying the anthology editor (as per instructions). I wrote the editor at the trad pub house a polite letter that I have written a version of a lot in my career.

Dear Editor,

I have enclosed the copyedit for my story. The copyeditor took the voice out of the story. I have stetted almost all of her changes. I do apologize for the tone of my comments in track changes as I got deeper into the manuscript. It became clear to me that the copyeditor had no concept of a writer’s personal style.

I have run two separate publishing companies, won awards for my editing, and have trained copyeditors over my thirty-year career. I am hoping that this particular copyeditor saw my opening three lines and decided that I did not know how to punctuate dialogue. Because if the copyeditor treated the other manuscripts in this stellar anthology the way that mine was treated, you have a problem.

I’m stunned that this copyeditor was chosen for an urban fantasy anthology. Urban fantasy is voice- and style-heavy, and should be copyedited with a light hand.

I do hope that you will ensure that my corrections make it into the final volume. …

I received a kind letter in reply from the editor, who works for Random Penguin. She said she forwarded my letter to the managing editor who hired the copyeditor, and promised to make sure the changes were in the volume.

The letter came before last week’s bloodbath at Random Penguin, where most of the mass market division NAL/Berkley is being “repurposed.” Last week, according to Publisher’s Marketplace:

Other outlets and Twitter conversations indicate at least four editors and other support staff have been let go, and that title cuts at the Ace and Roc science fiction and fantasy imprints are on the way.

Note that it says “title cuts.” That means books already purchased will be cut and the contracts canceled.

. . . .

I have no idea if the editor I dealt with still has a job. I have no idea if the managing editor still has a job. I’m assuming the copyeditor from heck isn’t employed with that company, since most traditional publishers’ copyeditors these days are freelancers.

I do know that the volume will appear in November as promised, since the book is available for preorder. I am now braced for a voiceless version of my story to hit print, since I doubt there’s anyone remaining at the company to oversee this volume.

Such is life. In a few months or years after publication (whatever my contract says), I will publish the author’s preferred edition. I do so love the modern era.

I know many of the writers in that volume and was exchanging emails with them on another project. I found out that several of them had had a harsh copyedit too. Some didn’t care (I never read copyedits,one told me), but some got as angry as I did. Of the ones who got angry, only one other writer (that I know of) actually restored the original version. The others told me that the copyeditor knew better.

Nope. No. Not at all. The copyeditor knew the style manual better. The writer knew how to tell a story with an authentic voice better than that copyeditor ever would.

. . . .

I’ve had copyedits from traditional publishers that are much worse than this one, including one young copyeditor who rewrote every sentence of my 100,000 word novel. I’m not the only writer this has happened to. A traditionally published friend of mine just dealt with the same thing last year on one of his novels.

. . . .

I wasn’t kidding when I told the editor at Random Penguin that I used to train copyeditors. I still train them sometimes, although less often now. When I had published my novels traditionally, every single company I worked for used my manuscripts as a litmus test for their copyeditors.

My manuscripts were exceptionally clean. The editors would tell me (one or two novels in) that they were sending my manuscript to a new copyeditor, with a recommendation for a light copyedit. If the manuscript came back with hundreds of changes in the first chapter, that copyeditor never worked again.

The copyedit was sometimes tossed away, and we would let the proofreader catch the typos. It was easier than doing repair.

. . . .

The best way to learn how to tell a story properly is to read for enjoyment. NOT critically. If you read for enjoyment, you’re getting the same effect that the readers are. When you’re done with that story or novel, figure out if you enjoyed the story. If you liked the voice, or the story startled you somewhere, go back and figure out why.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Editing, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Writing Advice

15 Comments to “The Copyedit from Heck”

  1. *Reads the whole thing. Shudders*

    Yeesh. I’ve been looking at editors to see if there was any I’d want to hire. A few have posted things on their sites that have me adding them to my mental blacklist. I see a few editors commenting in that post who I would add to that list, as well as the editors she quotes in one of her examples (Google the sentence she quotes). My goodness.

    I like what she says in the comments there: “… But arguing over sentences? To improve the writing? From someone who doesn’t tell stories for a living? Nope. That’s how you end up with serious writer voice.”

    Can’t be stressed enough.

    • Sometimes it seems like the only thing the publishing establishment cares about less than story is readers. And not by much.

      Le sigh.

    • I also added a couple of names to my “do not hire” list after reading the comments on the original post.

      I particularly liked the one attempting to school Kris Rusch on how as a mere author she clearly didn’t understand how essential editors are in improving writers’ craft. Awkwaaard. (Any editors wanna take out the extra “a”s? 🙂 )

      • At this point, I’m wondering whether nmheckel (heckle?) is a troll. If not, then… wow. 😛


        • The attitude displayed in those comments in question is consistent with what I’ve witnessed in the field, myself. It looks as if that commenter is defining critique and editing with some nuances that KKR doesn’t—but they also speak as if “line editing” and “copyediting” have specific discrete definitions, which is false.

          The only way an editor can help a writer’s craft is if the editor’s good at tutoring and the writer needs that specific tutoring that the editor can provide. I’m aware of that, and I am one of those editors who tends to give more “critique” than some find appropriate. (I often work with folks who haven’t yet noticed some fundamentals that English teachers often don’t bother to point out, and I’m the type to double-check potential typos and to give suggestions based on content. When I say “critique”, it’s really more commentary.)

          Is what I do helpful? Yes. But “essential”? Sounds like hubris to me.

          And that doesn’t change that for some writers, my line editing is overkill or even an outright nuisance. (I’m sure I’m on some of your don’t-hire lists.)

          There are times when “fixing” something harms it, or when fixing it isn’t necessary. If you can’t recognize that, what on earth are you doing as a mechanic?

  2. I’ve never considered myself to be unusually skilled in mechanics – until I started looking to hire copy-editors and proofreaders. Then I realized how much I’ve learned over the years.

    My mother spent years editing my work – she was exceptionally well-versed in mechanics. When I started publishing her work I decided to leave it alone. There might be an occasional typo or a l instead of a 1, or two spaces after a period.

    I must find the person who had the jewels to lecture KKR on writing. That has to be funny.

    • >I must find the person who had the jewels to lecture KKR on writing. That has to be funny.

      Yeah, I’m thinking there’s some Dunning-Kruger level stuff going on. I had to resist the temptation to ask Kris to post a photo of her Hugo award. That she won for editing. At “Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine.”

  3. The only time I ever suffer from high blood pressure is when I get a copy edit from a traditional publisher. 🙂 Undo, undo, undo!

  4. Did a copy editor change Kris’ title from “Hell” to “Heck”?

  5. I have the copy editor from Teh Awesome. Bridget McKenna, take a bow.

  6. This is what we all live in fear of, isn’t it? I once had a copyeditor who was apparently unfamiliar with the use of figurative language. When my heroine had an emotional conversation with her mother, she “felt lighter, almost as if she’d dropped five pounds” after their talk. The CE asked, “Is she overweight? This is the first mention of dieting in the book.” That was merely the most memorable comment. I think I blocked the rest of them, and there were hundreds, when the book I turned in before that had NINE total changes from the CE. Thank goodness for critique partners who put up with two days of “WTF?” texts from me as I grumbled my way through it.

  7. My copyeditor is *fantastic*. I highly recommend her. She’s a scientist, and so great at finding errors as well as voice consistencies. And she is available, taking on new clients at this time.


  8. I love my copyeditor. Her rule of thumb when we’ve discussed things she questioned is “first, do no harm”. It’s my story. She knows that. She respects that. I have no issues when she adds questions or concerns, because I know she follows her own rule.

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