Here, Fix This

edited textThis is not simply a blog about taking naps, though I’m looking at that soft pillow lying right over there… Soooo inviting, but this is also a blog about writing, so let’s rub our eyes and consider an aspect of writing that comes along eventually, working with editors.

One type of editor may advise the writer on content, make comments on ideas, suggest changes in style, and so on. These comments may be very general (“make your hero less whiny and irritating”), or the editor might work so closely with the text that they almost rewrite it in some cases, although this is fairly rare now.

(If you’re paying attention to the prison-like rules of English grammar, yes, I followed the singular word “editor” with the plural pronoun “they”.)

At the medical journal where I work, I’m a different type of editor. As a “copy editor” I do little with content. My job is not to turn the manuscript into good, elegant writing, since I don’t have 100 hours to spend on each one. I also don’t know the subject matter well enough. In any case, no one expects science writing to be particularly well written. Clear(ish) and correct are good enough.

Instead, a copy editor will normally focus on things to make a piece of writing more “clean”—correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and some aspects of style and clarity. In addition, a copy editor for a periodical will make sure the articles follow the house style (like our house style that weirdly insists on spelling “e-mail” with a hyphen).

Coming from the other direction, as a writer, I’ve recently hired a copy editor to edit the collection of short stories I’m in the process of publishing. Now that I have experience as a copy editor from both sides, I’ll give a few examples here of both.

Much of what I do with medical manuscripts involves technical style changes, things that normal humans would find pretty dull. For instance, any time I see the word “diabetes” it always has to be referred to as “diabetes mellitus” (house style). We also have meticulous ways to use N dashes and italics for P values and…this is already more than you want to know.

Somewhat more interesting are changes I do for the sake of better English, and since our journal receives articles from all over the world, weird English can sometimes be an issue. As an example, this week I had the phrase “Contrarily, longitudinal studies have found that…” I got rid of “Contrarily”, because what the hell kind of word is that? I replaced it with “In contrast”. As a point of style, I also always change “utilize” to “use” since the word “utilize” is just a lazy way of saying “look how smart I am”.

Contrarily, let’s approach this process as a fiction writer working with a copy editor. Fortunately, for the book I’m working on, I’m very happy with my editor, and I’ve accepted almost every suggestion she has made, but here is one I did not. My sentence read: “Where yall going?” Fool asked.

The editor changed the pronoun spelling to “y’all” but I changed it back to remove the apostrophe. Her spelling is correct, showing the contraction of where the word comes from (you all), but I spell the word as it will be spelled in the future, with no apostrophe.

Here is another example, with my original sentence: “Afterward, they sat there with their purple tongues out, from eating popsicles, trying to catch star rays on the tips of their tongues.”

The editor’s suggestion was: “Afterward, they sat there holding out their tongues, purple from eating popsicles, trying to catch star rays on the tips.”

The most important change here is moving the word “purple” to the same phrase as “popsicles” for a nice repetition of sound. In addition, the sentence flows more smoothly by avoiding my original slight awkwardness of prepositional phrases “with… from…” and dropping the redundant second use of “tongues”.

From the brief examples I’m giving here, perhaps you can see the intricacy with which a copy editor might work with the text. When I write, I take a lot of pride in trying to produce tight, clean writing, and yet I’ve hired a copy editor to try to increase the quality. The work I do with the medical journal is different, but also aimed at the final quality of the published article.

And if you want to write but don’t want to be bothered with learning the craft, you can pay a copy editor to fix your sloppy mess. We’ll take your money.


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