"To boldly go where no other copy-editor has gone before …"

Recently, after writing my very own first article, I found myself mulling over the following dot points, although they weren’t dot points during the course of my mullings, just words rattling about incoherently until I gave them some perspective and purpose.

I was applying final touches to said article, and after the first draft I was advised to change a sentence, as basically, I was splitting an infinitive. That was fine, and I really appreciated the intervention, albeit small, but it got me thinking. What I wrote, I wrote in my style, they were my words. And so I began to understand a little more about how authors must feel. Your words are a part of you and the way you say them/write them reflects your personality. Of course glaringly obvious grammatical errors need correcting, of course they do, indeed they do. But, in this instance, maybe it would have been ok to leave it?

When I read the altered version, it just didn't sound like the way I would say it. I felt that my identity was being threatened! Rather dramatic, I know, but it is the way I talk, have talked for all of my adult life, and probably spending most of that life in Australia hadn’t helped, grammatically speaking, as I found myself constantly swimming against the tide of Australianisms, uneasily scanning the waters for the sharks of Strine, during my early administrative days. Such diligence, however, made me the copy-editor/proofreader I am today.

Fortunately, copy-editing and proofreading is a bit like speaking another language. One is able to switch to the appropriate area, depending upon what one is doing. When I am reading other people’s manuscripts, I don my copy-editing hat, or proofreading balaclava (depending on the weather) and the grammatical mistakes are there in all their glory, nervously waiting for me to obliterate them forever.

Isn’t it strange how, when you distance yourself from a piece of writing, different attitudes take over? I suppose it’s a bit like the skill of personal interaction. I find when I’m with my friends from Surrey, I speak according to their personalities, and as a consequence keep my ribald Aussie sense of humour to myself. When I am walking dogs in the woods, if a fellow walker greets me with a ‘good morning’, I reply in similar fashion. If I am walking along a suburban street, past some builders, who say ‘wotcher?’ I say ‘g’day mate, air-gun’ (Australian for ‘how are you’) I can just imagine what they are thinking, considering I am a middle-aged grandmother! I like to throw in a bit of the old lingo, from time to time, just to see the looks on their faces!

Anyway, back to these dot points – this is what I was mulling over, and (I love the Oxford comma!) I will tackle them one at a time:

• Copy-editing a writer’s style.
This would be more likely to carry importance in fiction rather than non-fiction, their style is what makes them the authors that they are, after all. This is why it is so important to keep to the brief, if they (or the publisher) ask for little intervention, keep it that way. They have spent an inordinate amount of time putting their words together, they don't want some stranger querying left, right and centre. I would imagine it would be almost taken as an insult, and now in my own small way, I can understand why.

• Keeping true to their style without leaving them looking illiterate.
If the text is absolutely riddled with grammatical errors, they have to be dealt with, and the copy-editor really earns their fee with these sorts of jobs because the style must remain.

• How much intervention?
If there is no mention of this in the brief, once you have read a few pages, or maybe the first chapter, you will see the author’s style and any inconsistencies. Before starting any job, I set up a separate document where I list out capitalised words, hyphenated words, unusual spellings, special sorts etc. This can quite often come as a standard form from the production editor, however I like to have it all on one page, in sections that I am familiar with. Then when I come across a word I want to list, it is a very quick process to bring up the page and jot it down.

• Splitting infinitives, is that a style?
These days, I think this type of grammar is more acceptable. Maybe we are all flying on the Starship Enterprise in one way or another! Read this extract and see what you think:

"The only rationale for condemning the [split infinitive] construction is based on a false analogy with Latin. The thinking is that because the Latin infinitive is a single word, the equivalent English construction should be treated as if it were a single unit. But English is not Latin, and distinguished writers have split infinitives without giving it a thought. Noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, William Wordsworth, and Willa Cather. Still, those who dislike the construction can usually avoid it without difficulty."
 (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, 2000)

• Are all copy-editors different?
I believe this to be the case. I know I am a down-to-earth, no fancy words, type of gal. And others can be wonderfully OTT in the literary world. I think production editors get to know the abilities of their copy-editors and to some degree match the editor to the work.

• Will a piece of work emerge differently depending on the copy-editor?
Yes, as above, what one sees as an issue, another may just look upon as author preference.

• Do certain copy-editors have a style and personality to match an author’s? Do they need to?
A copy-editor with a technical mind is far more likely to do well for the author of a technical book; one with a mathematical bent, an excellent choice for a book on algebra; another who loves Shakespeare, well who wouldn't want that editor to work on a book of plays?

• Would a copy-editor without a sense of humour be able to do justice to a humorous book?
This would be more apt in fiction but can have a place in non-fiction. For example, Andy Field’s brilliant books on SPSS, reflect his personality from start to finish. When reading it as a copy-editor, it is so easy to get caught up in the mood, and work accordingly – this can only enhance the book. Would I provide the same editorial skills if I didn't ‘get’ the humour? Maybe, but it certainly helps if you do!

So, there you have it, mulling over with (can you tell I love that word?) and I must say I feel better for it! Now, onwards and upwards …

Jennifer Hinchliffe, Professional Copy-Editor and Proofreader, An Eye for Perfection

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