Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Adventures in copy editing

with 3 comments

Last night, I finally finished going through the copy edit for The Icon Thief, and though I’d been somewhat unsure of what to expect, I ended up loving it. For those of you who haven’t been through this process before—including myself, until recently—here’s how it works. Two weeks ago, I received a pair of Word documents, with track changes on, from my publisher. The first was the novel’s style sheet, which included a list of all proper names, foreign phrases, and unusual spellings, thus providing an amusing bird’s eye view of the entire story—every character, every historical figure, every location, every brand name. The second document was the novel itself, with lapses of grammar corrected, spelling and usage made consistent, and the occasional note on clarity or plausibility.

This last point turned out to be especially valuable. A copy editor is a lot of things, but above all else, he’s an objective eye, looking solely for grammatical and logical consistency, so he can identify mistakes that have gone unnoticed throughout the rest of the editing process. I’ve read this novel at least forty times, but it took my copy editor to see that on one page I say that a certain female character “carried nothing,” when a few sentences later she clearly has both a wallet and a cell phone. (I think I assumed she carried them in her pockets, which my wife assures me is not accurate.) When another character looks inside a stranger’s refrigerator and sees “cubes of lamb marinating on the top shelf,” my copy editor pointed out, reasonably enough, that it’s hard to tell lamb, at sight, from other meats. (I changed it to “cubes of raw meat, probably lamb”—which gives you a sense of how fine-grained this process can be.)

As for points of usage, my grammar is pretty good—all those years of Latin and Greek have paid off, at least in that one respect—so there weren’t a lot of changes. I did have my wrist slapped for inconsistent use of “toward” and “towards,” and found out that I never really thought about the difference between “further” and “farther.” (The former indicates duration in time, the latter in space.) I was told that I should use “a,” not “an,” with the word “historical”—although my good friend Katy’s dad, Richard Lederer, pointed this out years ago— and that it’s “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine.” And I also learned that “blond,” no “e,” is the correct adjectival form, even for women. My punctuation, however, is evidently impeccable, which I found quite gratifying.

There were, of course, a few revisions that I had to stet—there’s no way that I’ll accept the abominable “Web site” instead of “website”—but for the most part, I was content to let the copy editor’s changes stand. And I was surprised to find out how much I enjoyed the process. Every new pair of eyes on a novel provides the author with a surprising lens through which to regard the story, and I learned a lot about my own work by viewing it from such a dispassionate perspective. The Icon Thief has survived scrutiny by a lot of readers and gatekeepers to get to this point, and has been picked apart from almost every possible angle, yet it still offers up surprising new things. And just under a year from now, if all goes well, it will belong to the rest of the world.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2011 at 9:57 am

3 Responses

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  1. Is there such thing as polite debauchery?


    May 9, 2011 at 11:52 pm

  2. I am glad to see someone standing up to the ridiculous tyranny of Web site. It is terrible, but we’re all so oppressed by Microsoft Word’s decision to flag it. Never in my life have even thought “Web site.” Or e-mail for that matter.

    I always put my wallet and cell phone in my pockets and go without a bag. Almost always. I love walking everywhere and long ago I’ve learned that when walking over a mile or two a day is energizing when you don’t have a bag to lug. I have a lawyer friend (a woman) who on weekends just puts some twenties, a credit card and driver’s license in her front pocket, and carries her blackberry in a back pocket. I can confirm that women using pockets for wallets and phones is definitely done.


    May 10, 2011 at 5:26 am

  3. Thanks for the vote of confidence! Although the fact that I wrote an entire novel with a female main character without once thinking about her purse implies that this is something I need to work on…

    (And my copy editor also prefers “e-mail” to “email.” I countered, as Nabokov would have said, with a thunderous “stet!”)


    May 10, 2011 at 7:44 am

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