The Problem With Copy Editors

"God, protect me from jumped-up copy editors!" My friend, Karl the Curmudgeon, plonked his beer bottle onto the table and rubbed his face with his hands.

Problems with copy editors today? I asked. What's the kerfuffle, Snuffles?

"Don't call me that. It just sounds weird."

Sorry. What's the problem, Boblem?

Karl sighed. "My publisher hired this idiot copy editor to proof my latest manuscript, and he's bungling it."

What, like he keeps missing stuff?

"No, it's that he doesn't understand the difference between a writer's voice versus grammar. He's making these stupid changes in my manuscript that just suck the life out of it. He's a vampire."

Karl and I were sitting in our favorite Scottish-themed pub, McGillicuddy's, having lunch and doing a little day drinking. He had just read an email on his phone that set him off.

So what's he doing? I asked.

"What isn't he doing? There are more edit marks on here than a freshman English essay." Karl pulled up a document on his phone and showed it to me.

Oh. Oh. . . my. That's, yeah, that's really bad, I said.

"It's an entire chapter with nothing but this nonsense," said Karl, only he didn't really say "nonsense." "Look, I've got a scene with a cowboy in it, and the cowboy sounds like an English butler. Do you see this? He actually removed a preposition off the end of a sentence! 'Is this the gun with which my Pa was shot?' Even if that were correct, which it isn't, a cowboy ain't gonna talk like that. What sort of stupendous nonsense is this?"

Again, he didn't say "nonsense."

I snorted a laugh into my beer and wiped the foam off my face. Maybe he's not used to editing fiction, I said.

"He edits like an English teacher with a side hustle. Or how about this one? Later, I've got the cowboy talking to a one-legged nun playing piano in a saloon—"

A nun? I threw my head back and laughed. Seriously? Who is she, Sister Jeri Lee Louise?

"Yes, a nun. It's a comedy, so shut up. Anyway, this hack replaced 'ain't never' with 'have not ever.' Have you ever heard anyone talk like that?"

No, I have not ever. I am appalled at your gross abuses of Our Fair Language. In the words of Winston Churchill, it is utter nonsense up with which I shall not put!

Karl showed me his favorite finger and then flagged down our server, Molly, for another round of beers.

"And some more haggis, too, please and thank you," he called after her.

So what are you going to do about it? I asked. You don't have to keep these edits, do you?

"I'm firing the copy editor."

You can't do that, can you? Your publisher hired him.

"Hired him? He's her damn nephew. The kid's an idiot. I met him a few weeks ago at an editorial meeting. He had just graduated with his English literature degree and he spent 10 minutes blathering on about Structuralism in post-modern crime noir novels. I just kept staring at his man bun, thinking he looked like a damn balloon. And now my publisher has this idiot editing my book because it's cheaper than hiring a professional. This idiot wouldn't know good writing if you shoved it up his—"

"Haggis and beers, boys," said Molly, setting down the aforementioned food and drink.

Thank you, Molly, we chorused.

"Do you remember what Elmore Leonard said?" Karl asked me.

I imagine he said a lot of things, I replied. You'll have to be more specific.

"He said, 'If proper usage gets in the way of writing, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.' But that's exactly what this cheap hack is doing. He disrupted the sound and rhythm right out of the story."

I did that to my editor once, I said. The copy editor they had hired for my personal branding book was doing the same thing, confusing voice and grammar. She kept ripping out distinctive phrasing and language and turning it into milquetoast. She sent back each chapter with Track Changes marking all her edits. I would have to reject each one and change it back to what it should have been. Not one of her edits actually fixed any errors or made the writing better, it just flattened it like Kansas.

"What did your publisher do about it?" asked Karl.

I told her that I was just going to reject all of the copy editor's changes and re-edit the thing myself. She said that was pretty arrogant of me and that I'd better not miss anything or they were going to bring the copy editor back.

But it all worked out, because nobody pointed out any errors when it came out.

"That's because nobody actually read it."

Maybe, but I'm not the one whose cowboy-and-nun story is being rendered unreadable by a kid with a man bun. Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Superior.

Photo credit: The United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.