Tuesday 21 August 2018

Copy-editing a Manuscript - Why does it matter?

A few weeks ago, I attended an enjoyable Society of Authors event in Harrogate. Among a number of interesting people whom I met for the first time was Louis Greenberg, the chap who copy-edited Gallows Court - a very pleasant surprise! All the more pleasant since I'd found his copy-editing very efficient indeed. And this matters, because it's really important to make sure that a book on which one has laboured long and hard doesn't falter at the last fence because of a lack of care in production. Yes, there will always be some things that slip through the net - regrettable, but that's life. However, a professional writer cares very much about trying to keep glitches to a minimum, and the reality is that one needs help on this, because so often the original author sees what he or she thinks should be on the page - not what is actually there!

On discovering that Louis is himself an author as well as an editor I suggested that he contribute a guest post about the art of editing. He kindly obliged - and here's the result:

"When Head of Zeus asked me to copy-edit Martin Edwards’ Gallows Court, I jumped at the chance. It’s an enticing mystery set in 1930 London and I felt transported into the fog and freeze of that dark winter and the intricate and compelling murder plot that plays out there. But at the same time, I suspected that it would be a challenge – to find something to correct.

Copy-editing is a fine-tooth, stickling business, a different mental process from the creative splurge of drafting fresh fiction. Even writers who can edit will struggle to inhabit both headspaces on the same project. As an author myself, I think of myself as author’s editor, sensitive to retaining the writer’s voice, wisdom and intentions. I like to treat my clients’ manuscripts with the respectful care and attention I hope will be given to my own work.

Even when copy is very clean, each book throws up its own themes: in one job I’ll find myself revisiting everything I knew about the use of the appositive compound modifier; in another, pondering the semantic philosophy behind serial commas. 

I’ve written marginal opinion pieces about the spelling of whisky, the naturalisation of corporate neologisms, the most efficient rendering of non-standard gangster slang, and the language-rotting tendency to forget plurals when on safari. I’ve contributed to house style guides on italicisation of non-English terms and consulted manufacturers’ guides on the correct typography of HK VP9s, RAP-401s and GTIs – then broken those rules when the author has a consistent, deliberate case.

Still, when it came to Gallows Court, I knew I’d struggle. Martin is such a vastly experienced novelist and, as suspected, the plot was seamlessly rendered and the research meticulous. I get a hit of nerdish serotonin when I’m editing a historical novel and catch an anachronism before it gets to print, but Gallows Court only offered me only one, very marginal, case. In the end all I could offer Martin was some nitpicking on honorific capitalisation and hyphenated compounds. I’m glad he didn’t find it unbearably irritating and still invited me to write this post!



Liz V. said...

Wonderful post. Never an author but, in pre-retirement life, worked with several talented editors, whose abilities were amply demonstrated by one poor one.

Clothes In Books said...

That was fascinating! And the book is truly excellent.

Martin Edwards said...

Liz, Moira, thanks so much for these comments!