Neil Gaiman tweeted this:
Just noticed that someone at Penguin classics changed Wells’s “inexpugnable” to “inexpungible” in my HG Wells intro. #incopyeditinghell
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) December 30, 2015
… and something inside me felt calm for the first time since I started being copyedited.
Copyediting is terrible, even for Neil Gaiman. No one warned me how terrible it would be, or even that it would be terrible.
In fact, a former editor of mine – a genius whom I loved working with, who made my book better – wrote a book herself, and then wrote an apology to her authors, for not really understanding how terrible copyediting really is:
I’M SORRY that I told you to feel free to stet as many of the copyeditor’s comments as you wanted, without also warning you that going through your copyedited manuscript would feel not unlike being slowly debrided of burn wounds over 80% of your body by a spastic toddler wielding an old toothbrush.
Apology heartily accepted, Sarah, because you have given us all language that explains why a rational person (like myself) would call their agent on the phone, sobbing because some apparently insane, incompetent, and illiterate person was given a manuscript and allowed to change ANYTHING THEY FUCKING WANTED.
One of my books actually went through THREE ROUNDS of copyedits. On the first round, I put on my Big Girl Panties and my Thinking Cap and I just stetted the fuck out of that thing. (STET is an excellent publishing word that means “let it stand.” If the copyeditor changed something and you’re like, “Actually, I meant to say it that way,” you stet it. And if you’re like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS THE MATTER WITH YOU NO ONE HYPHENATES ‘ROCK CLIMBING’!!” you crtl-f “rock-climbing” and stet all of them. Just for instance.)
And then came the second copyedit, in which 80% of the things I stetted HAD NOT BEEN CHANGED BACK.
I’m not exaggerating. I actually counted how many of my stets had not been addressed.
Okay, so. There’s this experiment where a Lego fan is invited into a lab to assemble as many Lego figures as they like. They’re told, “At the end of the experiment, we’ll be disassembling all of your Lego figurines, so that the next person can assemble them if they want to.” So the Lego fan sits there are assembles Lego figures for as long as it’s fun, while the experimenter sits next to them and collects the figures in a little box, the Lego fan gets paid for their time, says thank you very much, and leaves. Fine. That’s Condition One.
Condition Two is exactly the same, except this time the experimenter doesn’t just collect the figurines in a box, he actually disassembles it right then and there, with the Lego fan still in the room, assembling the next figurine.
That is what that second copyedit felt like. I had just invested all this effort, and the copyeditor then invested effort to UNDO ALL OF MY EFFORT, RIGHT BEFORE MY EYES.
I pride myself on being a rational person, easy to work with, not taking anything personally. But that is the point at which I called my agent sobbing.
I said, “Can it possibly be that mine is the only name on the cover, and yet I don’t actually get to choose which words are used on the page??”
And she said, “Yes, it can.”
And I said, “THAT’S TERRIBLE.”
She tried to be sympathetic. I really love my agent. But it’s impossible to know just how terrible copyediting is, until you’ve been copyedited.
The really terrible part, though, is that about 10-20% of what a copyeditor does is EXTREMELY GOOD AND IMPORTANT! They save you from embarrassing, stupid errors of spelling, typing and grammar… while introducing new ones of their own. And I do genuinely believe that it is absolutely worth it to suffer through the other 80-90% of crazy-making, error-introducing bullshit that makes you want to slam your desk lamp against your computer monitor, in order to get that 10-20% of gold.
But it is without question the worst part of putting a book out.
So. I am writing this because no one warned me that it would be terrible, and then when it was terrible now I am learning that yes, IT IS TERRIBLE.
You will feel insane. You will feel gaslit. You will feel like the world is trying to destroy you.
It is not. You will get through it, and it will be worth it.