Monday, August 18, 2008

The Mighty STET

I read a blog today that hit home in such a way that I wanted to jump up and down and yell, "YES! That's it exactly!" I can't explain it nearly as well, so after reading this, go check it out.

But here's my experience:

I've been at this writing thing a long time (it's been almost exactly 14 years since my first submission), and for a good chunk of that time, I've been getting critical feedback (probably 11 or so years since I got my first feedback form from a contest judge, and nearly 9 since getting major critiques by peers).

In that time, I've developed a thick skin, and I crave feedback to help me get better. A good reader or editor will point out problems in a manuscript, whether they're big (this subplot drags, and I hate this character) or little (your modifier is dangling, and you're using "just" way too often). When it comes to feedback, bring it on! I want all the warts pointed out and fixed.

So I believe every writer needs a good editor. And a good copy editor, too. (The former helps more with the big stuff, and the latter on the little, word-by-word stuff.)

But sometimes you get the occasional copy editor who, I believe, is really a closet writer, frustrated that they aren't getting published. So instead of smoothing out and polishing your book, they try to rewrite it. On top of that, they get things downright wrong.

To clarify, whenever I refer to "my editor," I'm not talking about anyone who did copy editing. Those are different people, and sometimes you'll get two or three copy editors going over the same book, none of which are my "editor." I've been fortunate to always have fantastic editors.

Almost never do I know who these contracted people are; I don't even learn their names. Some are worth their weight in gold, and I feel as if I owe them large sums for their expertise. Others . . . mmm . . . not so much.

Case in point: Not long ago I had a copy editor who added four misspellings and at least one ma-hay-jor grammar error. (Not on my watch, you don't!) This editor even questioned some of my vocabulary (he/she didn't think "pique" was a real word, for starters).

These kinds of these are a bit annoying, but they're fixable, provided I catch them before the book goes to press. (Although I'm always terrified I didn't catch something they added, and readers will assume the mistake was my fault.)

What becomes a real problem for me are those times when a copy editor tries rewriting the book in their voice. In this case, they took lots showing and replaced it with telling. Some of my best descriptions were watered down to almost nothing. Any bits of my personality and voice were stripped out and replaced with cliches and flat images. Even spots of humor were wiped out.

I have never wielded my power of STET so ferociously as I did on that manuscript as I sat there, steam coming from my ears. On every page, I scribbled it: STET! STET! STET! I felt as if I were fighting for the life of my book, as if its very soul had been sucked out, and I was trying to perform CPR to bring it back to life.

My poor editor (my editor editor, not the contracted person doing the damage) got a serious earful when I turned it back in. Fortunately, she was patient and understanding and didn't even roll her eyes at me. I don't think.

But when I picked up the next copy edit on the same manuscript, it had a note from the new copy editor on the top that I don't think I was meant to see. Something about how, "I understand this author is rather particular about her voice, so I addressed only grammar, punctuation, and clarity issues."

Great, I groaned. I'm officially a "difficult" writer.

But that thought was quickly followed by, Hallelujah! A copy editor who is learning their job!

See, copy editors shouldn't ever mess with a writer's voice. As someone who has done lots of copy editing, I know that. I try very hard to maintain a writer's voice when I do editing work. I know what it takes to clean up writing so it shines and still sounds like the original author.

Ever since seeing that note (and enduring that STET session), I've been tempted to create a label for my publisher to slap onto all my manuscripts before they go out for copy editing.

Something like:

WARNING: This writer has serious control issues. Do not attempt to tamper with her voice. She is liable to blow a gasket.


Rachelle Christensen said...

Hey STET! Wow, you definitely learn something new everyday. Loved this post and glad that your voice isn't a sissy! Keep it up. :)

Anna Maria Junus said...

Hey I had a book that went through all the proof readers, copy editors etc. who understood all the different reasons why I used italics in certain places. It was the typesetter who came along and changed everything. He didn't have a clue, he just did what he thought was correct, to heck with the story. So now the italics in the book are all in the wrong places.

Annette Lyon said...

Ack! What a nightmare! I'd be so upset. One more case where the reader can't assume it's the writer's fault!

Jennie said...

I think you must have got the same contract editor I did on a book coming out next year. I about went ballistic! Play around with the commas all you want, but leave my voice and my research alone! This editor tried to make everything Sunday School nice which killed the point of the story. He/she also changed my words to pointless cliches. Copy editors and typists are NOT editors and should leave content alone and a contract editor shouldn't rewrite.

Randi said...

Sheesh! I don't know anything about the writing process, but I think that would be incredibly frustrating!!

Melanie Jacobson said...

Whoa! Well, I'm about to submit my stuff to you guys at PEG for my first professional critique. I don't know which of you will be handling it, but I'm glad I'll be having someone who knows what they're talking about go through it for me. I hope if I get published I don't have the same nightmare you did. The top of my head might blow off.

Julie Wright said...

Annette, I had an editor REWRITE ten whole pages! TEN! PAGES! Wrote in a whole new scene that made no sense, did not jive with the story and irritated me to the point of TWO boxes of twinkies and a two liter of dr pepper. I rewrote the whole scene and later he said, "Well, Julie just doesn't understand I get a scene in every book I edit."

Dang straight I don't understand. No where on my book does it say coauthored by ______. I was so ticked. And copy editors have no place doing anything but fixing typos and grammar.


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