OK, I have done it. I finished going through the copyedits on 800 pages of medieval history manuscript. That’s all I’ve done for a week (which is why there hasn’t been a blog post). Copyedits have so much to do with consistency and flow that I find it best to do them all at once, in a concentrated work period.

Plus I couldn’t actually bring myself to open the box.

The copyediting on this manuscript was actually very helpful and thorough, which (as those of you who followed my last book through copyediting will remember) is not always the case. The copyeditor caught more mistakes and misspellings than I thought I was capable of.

Still, a few stylistic disagreements became clear as I worked my way through. She closed up an awful lot of one-sentence paragraphs, which I generally restored; I understand that one-sentence paragraphs are often considered undesirable, but in a book like this the one-sentence paragraph serves as a useful transition between different stories. As, for example, between the story of Yazdegerd, last king of Persia, and the story of the caliph whose army drove him out of power.

Yazdegerd was still hauling along with him the remnants of his royal court–four thousand or so secretaries, displaced officials, palace staff, and their women and children. There was no way to support that many idle people, in winter, in the mountains, in a province cut off from its former trade partners. Instead of turning the king away, the Khorasan governer hired a couple of assassins to solve the problem. The hired killers arrived in the middle of the night and did away with Yazdegerd’s bodyguard. The king himself fled eastward and took shelter with a stonecutter on the banks of the Murghab river. As he slept, exhausted, the stonecutter murdered him and threw his body into the water. With him, the entire medieval Persian state perished.
Uthman’s attempts to turn his own conquered realm into a state now took a downturn.

The first six years of his tenure as caliph–the years from 644 to 650, which were spent in conquest–had gone well, but the last six years were increasingly difficult. The Arab historians who chronicle his rule say that the turn in his fortunes came when he lost the signet ring of the Prophet….

Or between the stories of the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain and the empire of Constantinople…

The old man died not long after, and Alfonso the Battler became king of Aragon and Navarre, Leon and Castile, rex Hispania. But he held Leon and Castile only through his wife, and their marriage was a disaster. Urraca was a grown woman in her late twenties, not a naive young girl. She had a four-year-old son from her previous marriage, and this child, not Alfonso the Battler, had the right to become the next ruler of Leon and Castile. She insisted on ruling her own part of the empire without her new husband’s help, going so far as to banish her old tutor because he referred to Alfonso the Battler as “king of Castile.” On top of the political problems, she simply didn’t like Alfonso; there was a “want of affection between the wedded pair,” says one chronicler. They quarrelled, and separated within a matter of months.

But Alfonso the Battler still claimed the title of king over the whole realm. Over the next eight years, he fought a constant war with the Almoravid armies along the frontier. Urraca also sent the armies of Leon-Castile against the Almoravids.

Periodically, the estranged husband and wife also fought against each other; once Alfonso the Battler even captured his spouse and kept her for a while as a prisoner of war. The hostility between the Christian king and queen thwarted their attempts; thanks to their decaying marriage, the Almoravids kept power a little longer.
Back to the east, eleventh-century Constantinople emerged from its self-absorption just in time to see a brand new enemy appear on the eastern horizon.

Basil the Bulgar-slayer died in 1025; Constantine VIII, his young brother and heir, wore the sole crown of Byzantium for only three years. He was in his sixties and had spent his entire life in hunting, horseback riding, and eating. He had no skill at governing and no experience as a soldier: “a man of sluggish temperament, with no great ambition for power,” Michael Psellus writes, “physically strong, but a craven at heart.” As a ruler, his greatest expertise was in “the art of preparing rich savoury sauces.” He had no sons and no heir; he had three daughters, but had refused to let any of them marry, afraid that their husbands might try to unseat him. His reign was one of staggering irresponsibility….

Hey: a transitional one-sentence paragraphs beats writing, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the world…”

For the same reason–keeping a forward flow in the narrative–I tend to begin a lot of sentences with conjunctions, many of which she marked out. I put quite a few of them back in.

By 330 Constantine had succeeded in establishing one Empire, one royal family, one Church. But while the New Rome celebrated, the old Rome seethed with resentment over its loss of status; the unified church Constantine had created at Nicaea was held together only by the thin veneer of imperial sanction; and Constantine’s three sons eyed their father’s empire and waited for his death.

Here’s a place where I restored both the opening conjunction and the one-sentence paragraph:

Now Julian openly announced himself as an opponent of Christianity. His baptism, he said, was a “nightmare” which he wished to forget. He ordered the old temples, many of which had been closed under the reign of the Christian emperors, to be re-opened. And he decreed that no Christian could teach literature; since a literary education was required for all government officials; this would eventually have guaranteed that all Roman officials had received a thoroughly Roman education.

It also meant that the Christians in the empire would become chronically undereducated. Most Christians refused to send their children to schools where they would be indoctrinated in the ways of the old Roman religion. Instead, Christian writers began to try to create their own literature, to be used in their own schools: as A. A. Vasiliev writes, they “translated the Psalms into forms similar to the odes of Pindar; the Pentateuch of Moses they rendered into hexameter; the Gospels were rewritten in the style of Plato’s dialogues.”

Most of this literature was so substandard that it disappeared almost at once; very little has survived.

(At the same time: I do begin a lot of sentences with conjunctions, and I did have many many one-sentence paragraphs. Reading through that amount of manuscript at once highlights all your peculiarities of style. To the point where you simply can’t stand the way you write anymore, which is why I’m feeling cranky today even though the work is mostly done.)

As a matter of style, the copyeditor put commas around every single one-word appositive. I removed almost all of these because they bog the reader down when sentences are filled with proper names. Compare my original:

His oldest son Lothair was crowned king of Italy and co-Emperor; his second son Louis was coronated in Bavaria, a little Germanic territory to the east which had coalesced out of the remnants of several tribes; the youngest, Pippin, became king of Aquitaine.

to the copyedited version, which feels quite different (and not in a good way) to me:

His oldest son, Lothair, was crowned king of Italy and co-Emperor; his second son, Louis, was coronated in Bavaria, a little Germanic territory to the east which had coalesced out of the remnants of several tribes; the youngest, Pippin, became king of Aquitaine.

Also noticed that the copyeditor dislikes colloquialisms (I mostly ignored the dignified rephrasings she suggested).

Despite the acidic tone, there is little reason to think that Procopius got his basic facts wrong; Theodora’s past was well-known to her contemporaries. Her father had been a bear-trainer who worked in the half-time shows given by the Greens between chariot races. He had died of illness, leaving his wife with three small girls under the age of seven. The Greens had hired another trainer, and in order to survive the mother had forced the girls to appear before the Blues as entertainers. Entertainment led to prostitution, and by the time Theodora reached puberty she had already been in a brothel for years. Procopius chalks this up to Theodora’s insatiable appetite (he claims that she could sleep with upward of forty men per night without “satisfying her lust”), but a darker picture emerges from even his sharp-tongued account: “She was extremely clever and had a biting wit,” he writes, “she complied with the most outrageous demands without the slightest hesitation, and she was the sort of girl who, if somebody walloped her or boxed her ears would make a jest of it and roar with laughter.” She had, after all, little other choice.

The copyeditor took out “chalks this up” and changed the sentence to read, “Procopius ascribes this to Theodora’s insatiable appetite.” I changed it back. The latter sounds stuffy.

One little bit of news as I close: you can now download an MP3 of my lecture about what (neo)classical education is (and isn’t) from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. We’re making it available to coincide with the tenth-anniversary edition of The Well-Trained Mind, and you can buy it for a mere $.89 (or £0.69). For a full hour of hearing me talk. How can you resist?

Showing 12 comments
  • Carrie

    I can’t resist! Off to figure out how to download an MP3!

    And I love sentences that begin with conjunctions. Even when there’s no good reason for it. But I digress.

  • Christina

    All that stuff is mind-boggling. There is so much I ought to learn! I am glad that the Story of the World version of Theodora’s story leaves out the brothel part, and the “she could sleep with upward of forty men per night without ‘satisfying her lust'” part! Very wise on your part. 🙂

    There are so many facets to writing, so many audiences you must think of.

    I, for one, love the way you write. I can understand you, even when you’re talking about complicated things. And that’s really important when you are simple like I am.

  • Brenda

    You write you like you speak, clear and straight forward. I think you never forget that making sure the reader comprehends and appreciates the content or message is more important than the writer’s ego. You write to communicate, not to BE a writer and that is exactly what makes you a great writer! You put the reader first. I love it!

  • Helen

    Yes, we do enjoy your writing style. My 13 year old son and I are almost at the end of the History of the Ancient World, so we are following the progress on your current volume with interest. Hopefully it will be available next year for our history text ???

    And, (conjunction), I will have to forego the pleasure of listening to you talk for an hour as my geographical area (NZ) precludes me from being able to download MP3s from Amazon. Unless you have any other suggestions?

  • Susan


    Can you download from napster.com? Search for my name there and you’ll find it.


  • Stacy

    Way to go, Susan! Waiting excitedly for the new book…


  • Helen

    Thanks Susan but unfortunately, downloads from napster.com are only available for US citizens.

  • Colleen in NS

    I love reading about the nitty gritty of how you write. You just undid things we are learning in R&S grammar (the bit about conjunctions and appositives/commas), LOL, but I “get” why after that explanation. And it makes sense. I guess it boils down to, if you can explain why you broke a grammar rule and the lack of following the rule adds what you want to your writing, then it doesn’t matter. It’s like you have a grammar framework to work within, but you can develop your own style in there, too, right? I get more and more now why you advocate letting kids develop their own writing voice.

  • Colleen in NS

    Oh, and will you be putting up your conference workshop outlines online anytime soon?

  • Charlotte Cushman

    I like the way you write. It is funny and enjoyable. The “colloquialisms” help me not to feel stupid!

  • Susan

    “Anytime soon” is relative. I’ll get them up as soon as I can shake myself free of all the other urgent things I have to follow up on. Doing my best, so please be patient.

  • Dowloaded the mp3 and enjoyed it. I know that U-Dad will never take the time to come through WTM like I have (due to lack of time, not lack of interest/appreciation), so I’ll plug him into my iPod for about an hour.

    Happy Weekend!

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt