Because I Can

An author friend of mine sent me an email the other day. “Am I crazy?” the subject line asked. Her manuscript was in the copyedit phase; as she worked through the copyedited manuscript, she kept finding changes made by the copyeditor that seemed to go too far. She felt like the nature of the lines she’d written was being lost—though she resisted saying that (“abstaining from leading the witness,” she said)—and wondered what I thought.

It’s hard to be a copyeditor, my friends. You’re tasked with improving the writing—through grammar, word use, punctuation, sentence reconstruction—and clarity and rhetorical devices and on and on; but at the same time you must stay faithful to the author’s vision and voice. With every manuscript you must become that author, in a manner of speaking; you must slip into his jacket. Slip into his head. Because the plan is the changes will feel so comfortable to the author, so much like his own writing, that he’ll approve everything and feel good about it.

So why do I get emails from authors I’m about to work with, warning me that “the last editor I had practically rewrote the whole book”? Sure, some of that may be hyperbole; it’s always shocking to open a manuscript you thought was in pretty good shape and see. All. That. Red. But I’ve heard this complaint often enough that I’ve begun to believe it.

In this case, the author said, “I’ve almost emailed you several times for your opinion on this. I’ve rejected several of the copywriter’s changes already and now I’m starting to question myself. The copyedits here are in red. Do you think they make the writing better?”

I took a look at the edits the author questioned. I wrote the sentences out as they were originally and compared them to the edited lines. In my opinion, the edits fundamentally changed the author’s message and her voice. Furthermore, my gut reaction is if an author finds herself rejecting changes over and over again, then there are two possible problems:

1. The copyeditor just doesn’t “get” the writing style.
2. The copyeditor is one of those “because I can” copyeditors that I try really hard not to be.

If an editor seems to be missing your point or doesn’t seem to get your rhetoric style or voice, keep calm. This is the sort of thing that can be cleared up easily with a little phone call or an email.

But the because-I-can power play is something I don’t get. As an editor I have no hesitation in changing an awkward (or otherwise poorly constructed) sentence. But I always assume the writer knows what he’s doing—unless it’s clear he doesn’t. I don’t mind employing because-I-can with a genuinely inexperienced writer, when it’s evident he just doesn’t have the chops yet. I leave him notes in the margins explaining how that dangling participle creates a sentence that doesn’t say what he intends; I leave notes like, “Did you notice how many times I deleted ‘So’ on this page?” I know anything I do will be better than what it was, and there’s no voice to wreck, because a writer that inexperienced hasn’t developed a voice yet. It’s a learning experience, and I strive to be amenable and gentle.

But generally a good editor fights against because-I-can, particularly to avoid a power struggle, as this benefits no one. My goal in copyediting is that my suggestions will sound like the author’s own great ideas, that my tweaks will be in the author’s voice, and that after we’ve tidied everything up again, the author won’t even see my tracks. Copyediting isn’t intended to make me/the copyeditor look smart; it’s intended to make you/the author look smart. There’s a difference.

Tweet: It’s hard to be a copyeditor. You must stay faithful to the author’s vision and voice.
Tweet: Copyediting isn’t intended to make the editor look smart; it’s intended to make the author look smart.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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