by Leonard Bishop
Once I received a phone call from an editor on the staff of the writer’s Digest books. They were publishing my first non-fiction book on the craft of writing Dare to be a Great Writer. The editor told me that the book was being retyped and would be sent to me by Saturday. Then she said, “You will be pleased with the new copy editing. Now you can relax and not be so difficult.”
I gasped, “Me, difficult? Are you crazy? I am a genial, affectionate, affable, cooperative, pliant, resourceful, and constantly humble man. Difficult, me? You must be talking about another writer!”
This is the background behind the accusation that I am difficult.
A vital insight a writer must learn about the publishing community is that many people try to take control over what he has written. He must not let that happen because most of the people in publishing, particularly in New York, are authentic phonies, and incompetent.
The writer keeps from losing control of his book by understanding the editorial function. Without a proper insight into what kind of editors enlist in publishing companies, and what they do, the writer can be shafted with a barbed wire wrapped rotor-rooter.
There is the acquiring editor who is, presumably, expert in acquiring new properties for the publishing company. There are also editors who actually edit a writer’s manuscript. They are supposed to be skilled in structural organization, knowledgeable about the assortment of literary styles, and sensitive to the substance and texture of the book’s content.
Many editing editors work on a free-lance basis. They can be hired by the publisher, or by the writer. I have edited many books for professional writer so I am conversant with the acquiring and editing editors. They can suggest, advise, or counsel the writer about constructive changes, but it must be made known to them–by the writer (and his contract)–that he wrote the book and that the decision to perform changes is his. The writer knows his own work.
I was able to deal with the acquiring editor, and the editing editor–but when the book was returned to me from the work of the copy editor, I screamed at the bumbling butchery. Whole sections were removed. Whole sections of content were changed. Portions were rewritten in the most inept prose. I was horrified. A marvelous book was utterly and irreversibly demolished. I didn’t know if I had been pogromized or raped. I rejected the copy editor’s work and would not let them publish the book in that deplorable, ruined condition.
All right–what does a copy editor do? The title reveals the function. The copy editor edits the copy. She does not intrude upon the content. Example: the copy editor checks the facts of the text to keep the writer from appearing the fool. “Marco Polo was a Transylvanian mortician who lisped and had an incurable hernia that kept him from traveling.”
If a copy editor suspects the historical veracity of the statement, she checks for accuracy and put in the required changes. If the writer composes a sentence like, “don’t not cross no street until no cars is writing,” the copy editor must decide if this sentence is grammatically proper. And if all the words are correctly spelt.
The writer, believing that a unique presentation of the content will interest the reader, may write in the margins of the page and leave the center blank. This would cause the typographical difficulties in the book design department. The copy editor should have the expertise to resolve the problem.
The writer, in a flare of anger, may write, “An editor at Reader’s Digest books keeps scratching the place where she had a frontal lobotomy.” The copy editor is responsible for judging if the statement is libelous. She suggests a deletion or change.
Some writers, in their struggle to write original prose, might begin the first chapter of a novel with, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…” The copy editor is accountable for realizing that the style of writing and the text may not be totally the writer’s invention–then determine whether the writer has plagiarized another creator’s work.
I will not allow people to tamper with what I write, when their tamperings are destructive to what I write. When publishers pay a writer to publish the book he has written–they are paying him because he has written the book. Not because he allows a copy editor to leap beyond her province to rewrite the book he has written. I am not difficult to work with–I am merely experienced and have no reverence for editors.
The only difficulty I have had in a working with editors is in trying to appreciate why it is necessary to have editors.
© 2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published November 29, 1987 the Manhattan Mercury)