I’m just going though, accepting and rejecting changes, on the final copy-edit of Babel. The copy-edit proof can look horrendous. It can really put off an inexperienced writer. By this stage, anyway, one is weary of the book and one may want to just get it signed off. The temptation is to “accept all changes”. This is actually rather a dangerous thing to do, for several reasons.
I know the copy-editor who worked on Babel quite well and thoroughly trust him. Even so, I had plenty of cause to examine every single suggestion very carefully.
One of the most worrying things was that half way through, he suddenly got a different take on how to punctuate direct speech. It’s easy to make this sort of mistake: I know that my students sometimes get the same thing wrong persistently and I begin to query my own judgement. I actually disagreed with some of the rules that he seemed to follow about commas, especially after “and”, and when to start a new paragraph. Interestingly, he was using same rules that I’d learnt at school – and that was a Grammar School, so there must be something in it. However, I sincerely believe that our fast-paced life has made us move away from using commas where we used to and that a comma in front of “and” is often acceptable and frequently creates another meaning. I’m actually seeking a third opinion on that and on the paragraph breaks. We always have two copy-edits and the other copy editor did not pick up many of these.
Sometimes the suggestions did not improve the text. Neither did they spoil it. Why not go with the suggestion, anyway?
In other cases I absolutely agreed with the copy editor but decided not to change: the slight clumsy phrase or the overwritten sentence was part of the text’s or a character’s voice.
In most cases, however, the copy editor’s suggestion made the text much tighter and much more readable. These suggestions are probably also lessons for me for next time I do my own copy edit.
Perhaps then, we need a set of rules for reacting to a copy-edit:
1. Don’t believe that your copy-editor is infallible.
2. Read and respond to each suggestion carefully.
3. If what the copy-editor suggests is no better nor no worse than what you put in the first place, why not go with it anyway? It’s the copy-editor’s job to know about these things.
4. If you disagree, discuss this with him / her and / or get another opinion.
5. Resist any changes that will spoil the voice of the text or one of its characters. You may have to make your case!