Hi. Yes, I’m still alive, even though I haven’t posted for over a week. I think I’m finally over the flu. With any luck it will be ANOTHER eleven years before I have it again.

So…things are looking up slightly here. It’s still kind of winter-grey outside, but the sky is blue,

and February is over. And I know spring is coming when I can look out of the window and see Daniel sunbathing on top of the grape arbor.

I do, however, have one of my less-loved duties to finish up before next week…going through copyeditor suggestions, in this case on the confessions manuscript for Princeton University Press.

Right before a manuscript gets typeset, it goes to the copyeditor (usually a freelancer hired by the publisher), who goes through it word by word, makes sure you’ve been consistent with spelling, fixes punctuation errors, turns numbers into words where appropriate (29 vs. twenty-nine), catches errors (Roger Mudd interviewed Ted Kennedy on CBS, not NBC), and makes sure that your bibliography is properly formatted. In my case, the copyeditor also changes all my whiches to thats. I am a grammar fiend, but I have a block about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. The explanation as to when you use which as opposed to that has never made any sense to me.

I’m grateful for all of that…but sometimes there’s a fine line between correcting mistakes and rewriting someone else’s perfectly acceptable prose in the way that YOU would write it if it were YOUR book. This time around, I’m spending an awful lot of time writing STET (which is copyeditor-speak for LEAVE IT THE WAY I ORIGINALLY WROTE IT BECAUSE I LIKE IT THAT WAY) over top of the copyeditor’s changes.

I’m wondering if part of the problem is Princeton’s status as a university press…I tend to write informally, in what I flatter myself is a readable style, and the copyeditor (who is very conscientious and has corrected ALL of my restrictive/non-restrictive clause problems) has been re-stiffening a lot of my sentences. The copyeditor, I should make clear, is NOT a Princeton editor but rather a freelancer (as almost all copyeditors now are). But perhaps the knowledge that the editing is being done for a scholarly publisher is affecting the copyeditor’s approach?

One example among many:

I wrote, about Aimee Semple McPherson’s own account of her supposed kidnapping, “The account highlighted her essential vulnerability and weakness–largely by positioning her alongside the popular suffragists of the early twentieth century.”

The copyeditor changed it to, “The account highlighted her essential vulnerability and weakness–largely by accentuating those qualities in a manner that might put her in league with the suffragists, who were immensely popular in the early twentieth century.”

Er…nope. That’s not changing a mistake; that’s rewriting prose style. Most of the changes also add words, which I don’t like. Never use ten words if five words will do.

So I’ve spent a whole lot of time writing STET on this manuscript.

Showing 13 comments
  • mary kathryn

    Your original was much better. Why use a stuffy style, when good, plain words will do nicely, thank you?

  • Valerie in Chicago

    Ok, I’m exhausted just reading about what you go through. Thank goodness everyone’s history study doesn’t come from the likes of me! Glad that you’re healthy again. We need your hard work! (my kids *definitely* will need your hard work!)

  • Lyn

    Your post made me snicker and remember one of Thomas Jefferson’s few reported criticisms of James Madison–namely, that Madison never used five words to describe an idea if he could use ten instead. It is interesting to me that even Princeton editors can get caught in stylistic editing rather than merely correcting errors and inconsistencies.

    Jefferson apparently lived the rest of his life peeved by the editing that was done to his original Declaration of Independence. I’ll bet he would have loved to have written STET over the committee’s edits to his work!:)

  • strider

    Use your veto power! As a former editor I agree wholeheartedly with you–keep your voice, not just because it’s YOUR voice, but also because it is much clearer.

  • Robin

    I’m glad you’re feeling better. My husband and I both have the flu right now–not very easy for Mom and Dad to both be sick while three little boys are well…

    Oh, and I do think that editor overstepped her (his?) bounds. I like your voice–that’s the reason I read all your books!

  • April

    I am glad:

    #1) that you are feeling better, and
    #2) that I’m not the only one who has dreadful problems with the which/that issue.

  • Michaela

    Glad to hear that you are better. I also enjoy your clear writing so STET away. Our whole family are enjoying reading The Story of the World (from preschool to highschool age!) I enjoyed your pictures of early spring too, we are still weeks away from such delights here in Alaska.

    Keep up the good work…and one more muffin won’t do any harm 🙂

  • Jenny

    Good for you! When I buy a Susan Wise Bauer book, I want to know that I am getting the real deal and not a copyeditor’s re-write! 🙂

  • Sylvia

    That particular copyeditor must not earn much per hour, taking all the time it takes to rewrite perfectly clear prose. After all, checking all those restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases takes time. The rule at the pup that I freelance for is “If it isn’t wrong, don’t fix it.”

  • Colleen in NS

    “Er…nope. That’s not changing a mistake; that’s rewriting prose style. Most of the changes also add words, which I don’t like. Never use ten words if five words will do.”

    This is EXACTLY why I like to read anything you write.

  • Tiffany

    Interesting – I have published with a university press and no copyeditor tried to rewrite sentences (and I don’t see any problem with your original sentence). I thought copyeditors of nonfiction ms. only focused on grammatical errors and sentence structure! Good luck.

  • Jeanne

    I have edited my father’s writings for years, and I finally learned to leave his “There exists” alone!

  • Gretchen

    “Positioning against” is entirely different than “in league with.” Words DO mean something! Keep on STETing!

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