Thursday, May 08, 2008

Copyediting, The Final Frontier . . .

by Sean Chercover

I used to hate revising. Silly (and hard to believe now), but years ago I actually saw re-writing as some kind of failure. I was suffering under a debilitating and unhealthy idea that voiced itself in my head thusly:

“If you were a better writer, you’d have gotten it right the first time.”

As I said, a debilitating and unhealthy idea. Kerouac’s famous scroll didn’t help any (this NPR story is definitely worth a read/listen) and it was a relief to learn how much of the scroll story was a deliberately created myth.

Anyway, I hated revising and consequently wrote a lot of garbage that was in desperate need of revision.

Now I love rewriting. One of the things I’ve learned from writers with five, ten, even fifteen or more books under their belts is: The tyranny of the blank page never goes away. The blank page (or blank 350 pages) will always strike fear in the heart.

But once you’ve filled those blank pages with words, life is beautiful. You’ve got something with which to work. It has form and substance and you can see it and feel it and examine it from different angles . . .

. . . and then you can make it better. Just as there’s nothing so frightening as facing a blank page, there is nothing so energizing as facing a finished draft and diving in to make it better.

And then agent and editor look at the thing with fresh eyes and offer their comments and suggestions, and you get to play some more.

And then comes the copy-edited manuscript, which I just finished working on.

The copy-edited manuscript teaches you a lot about the little idiosyncratic quirks you have as a writer.

For example, I seem to have a compulsion to hyphenate the entire world. It would seem that, to me, any group of words looks better connected by hyphens.

It was an open-and-shut case. This house is worth two-point-four million. They were floral-print sheets. We walked side-by-side. All incorrectly hyphenated by yours truly.

And for some reason I will never understand, I missed the opportunity to hyphenate “over-the-counter” and “matter-of-factly” – both of which do (apparently) require hyphens.

Of course, one of the nice things about the copyedit is that you can tell the grammar police that you appreciate the suggestion, but you like your bad grammar and plan to keep it that way. I decided to keep my beloved hyphens for “knock-on-wood” and “creeped-out” (and a few others) even if they aren’t technically correct.

And don’t get me started on the commas. I write with WAY too many commas. I’m like a bad director trying to give line readings to my actors. I’m trying to sit on the reader’s shoulder and say “PAUSE HERE, DAMNIT”. But the problem with all these commas is, that, they, really, slow, the, pace. So on second draft, I fly through the manuscript killing commas with glee. I rip them out willy-nilly (properly hyphenated? I have no idea!) and then the thing reads much faster without them.

Well. With this book, I was perhaps a little enthusiastic with the killing of the commas, and now I’ve got the copyeditor throwing little red pencil commas all over the damn place. And I know she’s right, but I also know that we really don’t need many of these commas and they slow the read (I didn’t really need the comma before “but” in this sentence, for example, even though it is correct). For me, rhythm and pacing and readability trumps technical precision (especially in dialogue).

So the copyediting stage can be a lot of fun, but you can agonize a long time over a comma or a beloved hyphenation. And you learn about your quirks.

I am a compulsive hyphenator. Even if hyphenator isn't a word.
I love leaving off the final comma in a sentence of serial commas.

How ‘bout you? Any particular quirks you’d like to share?


Martel said...

I, too, have a comma addiction. The world just seems better somehow with more commas in it ;)

Tasha Alexander said...


There is an evil little demon who goes through my manuscripts sprinkling commas in random places.


Pete said...

I have a definite weakness for em dashes, sometimes using them in every paragraph, many of which are removed on second or third revision. However, despite my love of em dashes, I also have a strong aversion to parentheses, which serve the same function but somehow seems (to me, anyway) less legitimate to use.

K Smith said...

I, like Pete, have used the em dash far too often, but then it seems like such a perfect little piece of punctuation. Stronger than a comma, quicker than parentheses -- it just seems to work so well that I guess it's inevitable that it would be abused.

Bethany K. Warner said...

I like dashes. And my journalism training forces me to leave of the last commas in a series too. I waffle alot on contractions... one draft, I'll contract things and then another revision, I'll un-contract them.

Barbara D'Amato said...

You're so right about this, Sean. I used to wonder why I couldn't get it right the first time. Actually, I still do, but I also know that's foolish so I don't beat up on myself so much. Writing is scary. Editing is fun.

Jared said...

I tend to use title case where I'm trying to stress the idea's importance to the character.

"He got his first hit in the Big Game."
"Nothing quite satisfied Johnny on a cold day like a Soup and Sandwich."
"There was no doubt in Julie's mind that he was The One."

It seems natural to me, but it bugs some people.

Picks By Pat said...

I'm always tempted to start a new book with a description of the weather, but an editor I respect said that writers should avoid that habit.

I also try to use the first two or three chapters to introduce the main suspects and show that they all had a motive to kill the victim, who ideally is bumped off early. But sometimes, the intended victim is still walking on page 30. When I see that, I act quickly and bump he/she off, so I can get on with the story. Murder is such hard work!


Jude Hardin said...

If I thought I could get away with it I would eliminate almost all punctuation the way Cormac McCarthy does.

Even the quotation marks? he asked.

Yes. Even those, I replied.

Sean Chercover said...

Nice one, Jude!

I'm not a maniac with the em-dash, but I hear you guys, and I probably should give parenthesis more respect.

And I do sometimes like to capitalize Very Big Ideas, especially if I'm making a somewhat sardonic point. Probably the lingering influence of HST on my writing. Had to de-capitalize a bunch of 'em in the upcoming Trigger City.

Tasha - please refrain from sending your little demon to visit my manuscript next time. Thanks.

Sara Paretsky said...

Mary Oliver talks about "getting it right the first time" in her wonderful little "Handbook on Poetry," Her beginning students always think it's a sign of genius to have it hit the page complete and refuse to rewrite. But getting a poem right, like any other work of art, including our own, means a study of craft and a commitment to writing, learning, rewriting. It will never be perfect, but it can always be better.