Blue Pencil in Hand

I've spent all this afternoon at work going over the copyediting for one of our novels. They have the main lights off on the floor to save energy over the weekend, so I'm working by the light of my little desk lamp, a bright circle on the page in the quiet. My computer gleams to the side with the full digital text of the manuscript (essential for finding multiple occurrences of a troublesome word or phrase) and Merriam-Webster's Eleventh New Collegiate Dictionary and Google (for use in checking mysterious nouns), and, I admit, a game of Internet Scrabble, because it is putatively my day off. . . .

Still, when we're not under deadline pressure, this is one of my favorite parts of editing: the tiny word-by-word, comma-by-comma, dash-vs.-ellipsis-vs.-period decisions on how to make meaning and communicate that to the reader. The author provides the text; the copyeditor's work offers an interpretation of that text, trying to make everything as clear, correct, and consistent as it can possibly be; and I adjudicate between the two, sometimes siding with the copyeditor for clarity or consistency, sometimes with the author for emotion. (This all gets approved by the author in the end, of course.)

Consistency is the big thing in copyediting: If you have the character's thoughts in italics once, then they should always be in italics; if you have them in quotation marks, they should always be in quotation marks. Authors are generally not good about consistency -- nor is it their job to be. And then there are all the rules about how numbers are treated (one vs. 1), or whether the period should go inside or outside the parenthesis, and whether you use a three-period ellipsis or a four-period ellipsis (the latter for complete sentences). . . . Whatever the Chicago Manual of Style decrees about the situation is usually what we do. My background is in copyediting, so I love this sort of stuff. But trying to be totally consistent throughout a long manuscript (this one's 391 pages) is a bear.

And then sometimes you break consistency for emotional effect. Sometimes you need that comma after "like" for a significant pause, or the character should misspell that word because that's part of his character, to spell words wrong, and the copyeditor corrected it because that's what her job is; then it's my job to put the misspelling back. There are no hard and fast unbreakable rules, same as anything else involving writing and editing.

All this takes forever, I must say, because it's the Oscar-Wilde-comma moment again and again and again: I've been working on the manuscript for about seven hours between yesterday and today (and allowing for Scrabble and e-mail and now blogging breaks), and I'm only on p. 293. My goal is to get the queries off to the author before I leave tonight, which means I should probably post this now and go back to the book. But for those of you who are interested in the editorial process: It's this, every day, one letter at a time.