The Blue Pencil

The way production schedules work it always seems

bluepencilthat just as I’m getting into a new book I have to double back and copy-edit the one I’ve supposedly finished. Copy-editing is important, as you’ll know if you’ve ever read a self-published book full of typos and bloopers, but it’s a drag. It is to book production what weeding is to landscape gardening.

Writers and copy editors never meet. Theirs is a distant and impersonal relationship, though it may be resumed every year or so. It’s quite usual for the same person to be asked to copy-edit successive books by an author. Copy editors are hawk-eyed. They catch mistakes and may save a writer much pillow-biting embarrassment. They also remember all the particulars of a publisher’s house style and so, for instance, know the preferred format for expressing dates. So far so good.

Sometimes they go a step further and when they do I feel I detect the touch of a would-be writer. I’m experiencing a little bit of that this week.

This para could be cut without loss said one margin note. Oh yes? Ha! Says you!

It’s very simple. Editing is all done on the computer these days. I simply hit the Reject button and the threatened para stays in.

Suggest using a less arcane word here said another note. Well now. First of all I don’t feel any obligation to pre-chew what I give my readers. I know they’re intelligent because I meet them and correspond with them. And if I happen to use a word they never heard before, sure don’t they have dictionaries? When A Humble Companion was being edited I remember having quite a tussle over ‘powder magazine’.

‘People won’t know what that is,’ they said to me.

‘Perhaps,’ I replied. ‘But let’s give them the opportunity to learn.’

The most egregious intrusion, as far as I’m concerned, is when a copy editor adds a clunking explanatory clause, something like, Lucretia stepped lightly into the waiting sandolo, a Venetian rowing boat smaller than a gondola

I had to deal with one such this morning. If I’d had a blue pencil to hand I’d have broken it over my knee in fury. So, if you’re thinking of reading The Liar’s Daughter when it finally sees the light of day, you’ll need to know what a sutler is. Also the medical use of the word ‘rigor’.

You have been warned.



  1. jane on April 4, 2013 at 8:07 am

    im ready!

  2. Verity on April 4, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I can understand copy editors fixing mistakes. But they’re copy editors, not sub editors or editors – why suggest cuts and changes?! What is the point of reading if you don’t learn something? I had a vocabulary way older than my age when I was at primary school because I read books. I still like to learn new words and about new things – what’s the problem copy editor?! It’s not like the internet doesn’t make googling a word you don’t understand easy!

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