My Copyediting Sins

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned against my copyeditor.

I’m going through the copyedit of The Ghost Brigades and I am appalled — appalled, mind you — at the sheer number of immensely stupid grammatical errors I have made in the course of the writing. Things as fundamental as the "that/which" grammar rule — which I know, by the way — are wantonly peppered through the manuscript. My only saving grace is that at least I was consistent in my screw-ups.

One does wonder if the copy editor sits there reading, clucking sadly to him or herself at the monstrosity of grammar which (that!) lie (lay!) before them (him! Or her! Pick one!) and thinking I’m gonna have to waste an entire blue pencil on this one before bringing said pencil down in a savage orgy of correction, correction, correction.  And then the manuscript is returned to the author, silent (but not wordless — oh, no, not wordless) rebuke on every page. You know, I know a nice freshman composition teacher who can tutor you, it seems to say.

Yes, I’m reading too much into it. But you should see how much blue is on this manuscript. It’s as if it came back from the editors with the note: "Congratulations! It’s a boy!" 

To all copyeditors everywhere who will one day have the misfortune of receiving one of my books to edit: Sorry. I’m really not an idiot. Thank you in advance for making me look good. And naturally, this goes double for the copy editor of The Ghost Brigades. When the finished book comes out, you won’t see his hard work, because that’s the nature of the copyediting gig. But let me assure you: Oh, it’s there.

Post Script: The first person who copy edits this entry in the comments is so going to get deleted. Yea verily, and the second one, too! And so on! Don’t tempt me, man.  

42 Comments on “My Copyediting Sins”

  1. Um. Mr. Scalzi? There is no grammar-related rule for that and which. At one point, somebody decided that it would be kind of, you know, nice if we all used that with restrictive clauses and which with nonrestrictive clauses, but that’s never been actual usage. You may, of course, prefer to replace thats with whiches, simply because a lot of people who follow certain style manuals believe that the preference is actually a rule, and you don’t want to throw those readers into a hissy fit. I would advise it myself, as there ain’t nothin’ wrong with doing it the way Mssrs Strunk and White like it. But it’s not a rule.

  2. Vardibidian writes:

    “There is no grammar-related rule for that and which.”

    Tell that to my copy editor. Also, in the absence of an offical rule, Tor as a publishing house has a style guide to which the copy editor adheres; it’s possible that the that/which issue is addressed there. Be that as it may, there is as you note a generally accepted grammatical heuristic as to which is to be used when.

    The Chicago Manual of Style discusses the issue here.

  3. There’s quite a bit of discussion over on the Language Log (try, for instance, What I currently know about which and that, but the point is that, as the Chicago Manual you linked to states, “Some people use “which” restrictively, which is more or less okay (and popular among writers of British English) as long as no commas are involved”. What is at issue is clarity, not grammar; “more or less okay” means grammatical, I guess.
    Of course, it makes sense to follow house style anyway, and as I said, there’s certainly nothing wrong with only using that with restrictives and which with nonrestrictives. Use the word which you feel best suits your sentence. The one that sounds right. Avoid confusion. All that.

    It’s just one of those strange things—somebody says there ought to be a rule, and then the rule gets into a book or two, and then the next thing you know Microsoft Word is autocorrecting it, and it’s all made up. It doesn’t describe how the words are actually used, even by people who are considered good or picky writers.


  4. It’s definitely true that I’ll stet a usage of “which” or “that” if I prefer what I over over what’
    s “correct,” particularly if the usage is in dialogue. Particularly in that case, you have to have an ear for how people speak (or a reasonable facsilie thereof), and that is preferable to anything else.


    So I shouldn’t point out that…

    oops. Never mind.

    Blessings should be showered over all editors, proofreaders and copy editors. I read once that an author regularly dedicated her novels to her editors out of gratitude for their unsung efforts. I thought that was pretty classy of the author.

  6. John, have you considered sending a little something to the copy editor? Maybe you should throw a little picture of yourself studying one of Athena’s schoolbooks in there, too.


    I hope the book does well for you.

  7. Harry Connolly said, “John, have you considered sending a little something to the copy editor? Maybe you should throw a little picture of yourself studying one of Athena’s schoolbooks in there, too.”

    I second that motion, and advance it to one of yourself studying while wearing a dunce cap (preferably with Athena using a pointer to indicate a particularly egregious error illustrated on a chalkboard …

  8. Must… remember… to… close… parens… (especially in a discussion over copy editing…)

  9. Good copy editors are gods. I’ve hired good ones and terrible ones (one of the worst is now a Pulitzer-winning playwright), but the really good ones are simply AMAZING.

  10. “thinking I’m gonna have waste an entire blue pencil on this one”
    Shouldn’t it be “have *to* waste”…?
    My own minor (but not humble) contributions.

  11. As a copy editor myself, I can say that one of the nicest things you can do in appreciation is to add your copy editor to the acknowledgments page. Mike and Kathy Gear, China Mieville, and Wil McCarthy have all done that for me, and I always appreciate it.

    Oh, and if you’re wonderfully happy with your CE, request the same copy editor for the next book you do, too. That is also appreciated, and will make you both happy. :-)

  12. You’re on thin ice, Waldo. Also, I fixed it.

    Re: getting the copy editor something nice — way ahead of you. He’s getting into the acknowlegements for starters, as Ms. Hoak has suggested.

    As an odd coincidence, the copy editor is the father of one of my best friends in college, although he was assigned Old Man’s War (which he also copy edited) without the editor being aware there was any connection (I myself was entirely unaware of it until later). Proof it’s a small world, after all.

  13. And just yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend about how I have grown to loathe the intentional illiteracy that shows up on the internet.

    And as I was talking, I started to realize that it’s not about illiteracy, or common usage really. It’s about my personal foot coming down on any usage of English which is more degenerate than my own (I know I use English in a way that would creep out grammarians (for example excessive (and nested) parentheticals (this qualifies as an old joke for me, but it’s true anyway) and the old “they”).

    Funny, how thinking about something which feels at first like righteous disgust turns out to be self-centered and hypocritical.

  14. Scott, I need to memorize the last sentence of your post, or at least cross stitch it and hang it someplace to remind me of how judgmental I am.

  15. Oh, for God’s sake, man. Copyeditors get *paid* to do this. You making lots of mistakes means they get to bill more hours. You’re doing them a *favor*! :’)

    (I lived with someone who did copyediting professionally for five years. She definitely seemed to think that writers who couldn’t distinguish which and that were kind of lame, but it was with an attitude of amused tolerance – not everybody is fussy enough to be a copyeditor, after all!)

  16. My wife walked by and wondered why I was laying on the floor. heh hehe.

    Thanks John…would you believe my birthday in in a short week? No teasing a man near his birthday.

  17. Editors don’t expect people to be able to self-edit perfectly. And when we correct the inevitable errors, it’s so much nicer to hear a word of thanks than “You changed my wooooooords!”

  18. Having at several points copyedited, and being rather hyphenated (as in, yes, I still respond to the old joke about “anal retentive” :-) myself, I appreciate that you appreciate the CE. It’s very easy to lose the work they do in the shadow of the author and the acquisitions/line editor, both of whom usually have much higher professional profiles.

    Proof it’s a small world, after all.

    Proof it? I’ve filked it!

  19. May I add another vote for the singular “them”?

    I know the question mark should go inside the quotes, but I’ve always hated that usage rule. I’m of the quotes-mean-exact-quoting family of thought.

    I won’t bring up serial commas, which John and I already disagree on.

    I think the English language is evolving into the demonstrable need for third person gender-neutral personal pronouns by the increasing use of them/they for that purpose.

    Of course, we could use the contraction of she, he, and it by using s’h’it…

  20. I feel the need to respond to Ted Lemon’s comment, “Copyeditors get *paid* to do this. You making lots of mistakes means they get to bill more hours. You’re doing them a *favor*!”

    When I copyedit, I get paid by the page, not by the hour. It’s a fair arrangement all around — the publisher knows up front exactly how much the work will cost, and I do not get penalized for being good at my job and working at faster than the expected rate.

    It is not a favor to create mistakes so someone can spend time fixing them. The best favor authors can grant is to do their job well, creating a clean manuscript with easily fixed mistakes. There have been times I have moaned in pain and said, “What in the world was the author trying to say here?” Things like serial commas and which/that distinctions definitely fall into the not-a-big-deal category.

  21. ok, so, pathetic me was googling for pictures of hot goth girls,(insert snide joke here), when I found your daughter holding a goth doll. Not exactly what I was looking for, but after I read a lot of your blogs, the more I laughed, and cried, and agreed with damn near everything I had read. This is going in my favorites, and I thank you for your insight into so many of the topics ive thought about and not written about myself. cheers!

  22. Erin said ‘There have been times I have moaned in pain and said, “What in the world was the author trying to say here?”‘

    I would imagine that scientific journals must be especially hard to copy edit. The ideas are often so complex that only a hundred people in the world will totally understand a given paper. Plus, despite years of education, scientists are often lousy writers; paragraph long sentences, fragments, and other things that require major rewriting instead of a quick word change.

    Like everyone else, copy editors seem to vary in their sensibilities. My advisor complained when one of his papers was changed to predominately first person, which is not standard for such papers. He called it hes “we we” paper since the word “we” appeared so many times.

  23. Query: would the proprietor be willing to share with us an example or two of things the copy editor caught? (I’m not so interested in typos — I’m thinking the slap-your-head-how-did-I-write-that kind of error.)

  24. One of the biggest things, actually, is the fact that one character not only changed names (from “Wigner” to “Wigand”), the character also changed sexes. Oops. Another character ping-ponged between the name “Seaborg” and “Seaborn.” “Seaborg” was the correct name.

  25. I’ve just finished checking the copy edits for my next book from Tor, and I’m proud to say that — as of published novel #7 — I have finally gotten used to spell-checking my manuscripts before I send them in.

    (Trust me, my manuscripts are B-A-A-D!)

  26. I agree with Mark E about putting punctuation inside quotes. It feels wrong. It bothers my mathematical sense.

    I make an exception when the punctuation is part of the quote, though occasionally the quoted punctuation disagrees with the sentence punctuation and I have to use both. Victor Borge would be proud.

    I couldn’t believe Mark E asked “May I add another vote for the singular ‘them’?”!

  27. Eek, there are still people getting paid for piecework? That’s awful – I thought that went out with the Pullman strike in the 1890s. My ex-girlfriend was always paid by the hour. OTOH, she was working in San Francisco publishing – maybe it’s different in NYC or something. Also, she was doing tech pubs, not fiction, so that might be where the difference lies.

    Anyway, I will take your comments under advisement for my next book, should I write one. The copyeditor for my previous book changed all the verb tenses to the present tense without accounting for the fact that this frequently changed the meaning – I still haven’t entirely recovered from that, although I know that ultimately I just have to let it go and move on. :’)

  28. Erin,
    John’s manuscripts aren’t hard to understand. On the contrary, I think the ease and fast pace with which one can read them makes it harder to catch the missing words (and the extra ones).

    Good for you on spell-checking! One thing I find most useful in MS Word is the “ignore all” option. If you take the time to apply that to correct spellings of names of characters and made-up technical terms or brands, then Word will highlight places where you’ve really got those names wrong. This helps keep capitalizations consistent as well. And without telling Word to ignore names it’s easy to have a document that’s so peppered with red underlining that you can’t see the real issues.

    Once you’ve identified an incorrect variant on a name (like the Seaborn/Seaborg issue John mentioned above, or times when he typed BrianPal instead of BrainPal), then you can do a “replace all” to eliminate further instances of the error.

    (Use your tools, people!)

  29. I would imagine that scientific journals must be especially hard to copy edit.

    I’m not so sure that journals *are* copy edited. Many is the paper I’ve read with egregious grammatical errors. And if my recent paper was copy-edited, they never told me about it or asked me to go over the corrections…

  30. One of the biggest things, actually, is the fact that one character not only changed names (from “Wigner” to “Wigand”), the character also changed sexes. Oops. Another character ping-ponged between the name “Seaborg” and “Seaborn.”

    I had forgotten that particular category of error, but I do that pretty frequently. (Most frequently these days with case names in legal briefs.) One wonders if there is a name for that kind of mistake. I use Anne KG Murphy’s method to try to sniff those out.

  31. Journals in my field are copy edited. The cool thing is that the proofs, both the “redline” which show all of the mistakes I made, and the galley proofs are sent to me by PDF file. That means I can fix my local version, which I then send out as a electronic preprint.

    Reading Charlie’s blog, with all his headaches from mailing pieces of paper back and forth, really made me appreciate PDF files.

  32. There should be a competition, or something. Get people to scan in their most heavily copyedited page, ever, and see who comes out the worst. That way, whoever wins (or loses?) for having the greatest number of corrections on a single page will take the heat off the rest of us …

%d bloggers like this: