First of all, thanks to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces last week when I found myself dealing with some family issues. The problem’s still around, so you may be seeing more of Chris over the next few weeks. He really is a good friend.
And I’ll be seeing him, literally, in a couple of days; the play he posted about last week goes live this weekend, and as usual Chris sold himself way short. I’ve ‘met’ the character – and the actor – he wrote it for, and read all the books the character features in, and if you happen to be in Leeds on Saturday afternoon, you’ll miss a treat if you pass it up.
Meanwhile, I have a job – yes, an actual paid job – to finish, and as these things often do, it’s set some thought processes in motion.
Most of the jobs I’m asked to do are copy-editing: the final stage of editing before a book is typeset into the format it will be printed in. For the uninitiated, the process partly involves going through the text looking for anomalies (such as oak trees in full leaf in November, or a jacket that changes from denim to khaki halfway through), or small inaccuracies which haven’t already been spotted by the development editor, like a siren on a police car a decade before sirens were introduced. It’s also ensuring the book meets the publisher’s house style requirements: -ise or -ize endings, double or single quotation marks, where to use italics, that kind of thing.
Mostly I’m checking for missing words, unclear punctuation, over-wordy sentences which blur the meaning... anything which could get in the way of the words saying exactly what the author intended. I’m also looking for my own pet bugbears: too many -ing words; repetition which clearly isn’t for effect; physical impossibilities like empty bottles of wine, and ‘sipping his coffee, he said...’. And I’m smoothing out any sentences which feel a little clunky.
I act as the six-month gap between finishing what feels like the final draft and going back for the final dust and polish: the distance which allows the author to see all the glitches that didn’t jump out before. My task, in short, is to try to make sure the author has written the book s/he thought s/he had written.
So what qualifies me for this important part of the process? You may well ask; I don’t have a clue. I went to school at a time when grammar, including proper use of punctuation, were considered important, so I learnt the rules. I read a lot, and I mean a lot, of fiction, so I’ve absorbed a lot about when it’s OK, even necessary, to break those rules. And they say practice makes perfect, and though I make no claim to perfection, I’ve practised a lot; I must have copy-edited well over a hundred books over the last twelve years or so. Is that enough? Most people I deal with seem to think it is, and I remain constantly aware of the need not to tamper with the author’s ‘voice’, but I’m never quite sure if I’ve gone too far or not far enough.
This current job, though, isn’t copy-editing; it’s the last stage of all. I’m proofreading the typeset manuscript, picking up any remaining minor glitches before the book goes to print.
And I’m not finding it easy. Missing words and unclear punctuation, fine; they need to be sorted. But what about those clunky sentences? My trouble is I’m incredibly picky, and I keep wanting to copy-edit. I know I mustn’t change anything that isn’t essential; if I do, I’ll upset the author who’s written it, the editor who’s smoothed it out, the typesetter who’s fitted it into the right number of pages, the production manager who has a schedule to keep to...
But it’s a fine line between desirable and essential. And who am I to decide what clunks anyway?