Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Copyediting Challenges

Below, a peek at the deer making themselves right at home in the backyard of my daughter's new house.

In the "bear encounter" video below the photographer/narrator is my daughter; the other voice, her husband's cousin. The scene, her front yard. 
[Alas, after many tries, I was forced to settle for a link to Susie's Facebook page. If you would like to see her first encounter with a bear since moving to Longwood, just scroll down. It's the video directly after the deer photo above.] And yes, Longwood definitely has wildlife. It is only about three miles from here that an alligator bit off the UCF professor's arm earlier this month.

For video of bear eating the Reale family garbage, click here.

What Grace is Reading . . .

Over the last few weeks I've been thoroughly enjoying revisiting two series by Anne McCaffrey - the Dragonriders of Pern books (though not all the spin-offs) and the Freedom series. As someone in the last stages of readying a SyFy/Fantasy series for publication, I am, as always, awed by McCaffrey's ability to build worlds so detailed a reader can not only see, but positively wallow in, them. Though I couldn't help but note on this time through (my third?) that the characters are so much more fleshed out in the four Freedom books, one of her last series, than in the Pern classics.

Note: I recall being thoroughly startled when I read a reference to the Dragonrider series as Fantasy when I had always thought it Science Fiction. Must be the dragons, because, believe me, I'd put Anne McCaffrey's use of scientic facts up against anyone's. Alas, I freely acknowledge my scientific knowledge in no way compares to hers, which is why I call my Blue Moon Rising series, "Futuristic/Paranormal"! 

Copyediting Challenges

At one time or another, I've mentioned most of the problems that will be listed in this new series on copy editing, but they keep cropping up when I am editing other people's work, so there seems no doubt they need repeating.

First of all: What is copyediting?
An editor deals with the content of a book: Does the plot need tweaking? Are the characters fleshed out? Did the author fail to make a vital point clear? And so on.

A copy editor, a much lower mortal on the publishing ladder, checks grammar, punctuation, continuity, facts. Most publishers have a style sheet which he/she must follow (there is a surprising amount of flexibility in English usage). And, unfortunately, there is no handy-dandy book like The Chicago Manual of Style for facts (except perhaps Wikipedia!). And yes, The Oxford English Dictionary is a treasure for what words were in use in a particular time period, but many authors find it out of their price range.

Pity the poor copy editor. (As well as being one, I've fought with my share of them in my time.) The howls of anguish and outrage from authors range from complaints about copy editors who have zero knowledge of English titles or laws of inheritance to a contemporary romance in which a copy editor added a decimal point before 9mm, transforming a Glock 9 into a gun with a barrel about the size of the head of a pin!

Basically, a copy editor can save you from having egg on your face, can nudge your punctuation and grammar into prose that meets the highest professional standards. Or your copy editor can be a real pain in the neck, making more mistakes than you did. Somehow you have to fight your way through the comments, wincing but grateful when the copy editor catches those things you inevitably missed. But never hesitate to stand up for what you know is right when the copy editor goes totally off track. 

I have to admit that when I am copyediting, my style sheet is in my head, the result of an outstanding English teacher in high school (not so much in college) and decades of reading professionally edited books and struggling through edits on my own books. But always, always, I refer back to The Chicago Manual of Style, the "publishers' bible." And more and more, I groan over what I see in the barely edited books I sometimes stumble onto via my Kindle. Yet the hardest thing of all for me is to walk the thin line between what I believe is correct and what other authors were taught in school. Not mistakes, but consistent deviations that I realize must have been learned in English class. So what now? 

Example: The Chicago Manual of Style puts a comma before the last "and" in a series. So do I. But I have editing clients who do not. And in so-called "modern" usage, that too is correct. So I wince and let it go. Which brings up another problem. If you're sticking "however" into the middle of phrase, it must have commas around it. And yet when I use "too," I do not put commas around it, whether it's in the middle of a sentence or at the end. This is a subjective choice on my part as commas around such a short word - technically correct for an "insertion" - seem to interrupt the flow. 

The above paragraph serves to illustrate why publishing houses have style sheets. Copy editing is not black and white, the rules not etched in stone. There are so many subjective decisions, the mind boggles. Here is a partial list of the mistakes that bother me the most:

1.  Compound sentence.  
From The Chicago Manual of Style:
"When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction. If the clauses are very short, and closely connected, the comma may be omitted."  

Basically, that means that if you have two clauses with a subject and verb in each one, put a comma between the clauses. An allowed exception - the very short: Betty hit the ball over the net but John didn't.

2. Compound predicate.
From The Chicago Manual of Style:
"A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate—that is, two or more verbs having the same subject, as distinct from two independent clauses—though it may occasionally be needed to avoid misreading or to indicate a pause." 

Example from CMS:
General rule:
Kelleher tried to see the mayor but was told he was out of town. [one subject, two verbs]

Exception to the rule:
She recognized the man who entered the room, and gasped. [one subject, two verbs but a comma added to indicate a pause, or emphasis.]

3.  Dangling participles.
Dangling participles not only make many readers gnash their teeth, they tend to make the person who wrote them an object of fun. NOT how you want readers to react to your deathless prose.

Any time you begin a sentence with a gerund (a word ending in "ing"), be on the lookout for the dreaded Dangling Participle. There is no option here. It must be fixed. One example in The Chicago Manual of Style is: "Dodging the traffic, his cell phone got dropped in the street." Since the gerund phrase must match the subject of the sentence, this sentence actually states that his cell phone was dodging traffic. CMS's re-phrasing of the sentence - an easy fix: Dodging the traffic, he dropped his cell phone in the street.

4. Commas in a series.
 Although, as stated above, I do not change my clients' preference for omitting the comma before the last and, I strongly advise using it. Like the comma in compound sentences, it adds clarity and readability.

Example from The Chicago Manual of Style:  
She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.

~ * ~
 More examples next week.

Thanks for stopping by.


For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.
For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.


  1. Spot-on examples, Grace. A rule I've developed on my own--I think--is the comma after "and" and "but", if the sentence that follows is parenthetical. E.g. "He called my name and, well aware that everybody was staring, I turned to him." Or "I knew it was a stupid move but, so help me God, I ran after her." My editor didn't seem to mind, but I had a very insistent beta complaining about that. My editor said it's subjective, but I can't seem to place a comma before the "and" when it's not part of the parenthetical. If you take "and" or "but" out in the above sentences, the syntax would be wrong. What would be your take on that?

    Greetings from Greece! (Yes, to top this off, English is not my mother tongue)


  2. Maria, I call you solution "common sense." Yes, strictly speaking, there should be a comma on both sides of "and" in those situations, but it simply looks awkward, sort of a hiccup for the reader. The alternative is to use a comma before "and" and none until the end of the parenthetical clause. This is one of those subjective choices. As long as you are consistent in your usage, I certainly wouldn't call any of the above choices "wrong." And major congratulations on being so fluent in English! I was recently in Greece and couldn't even read most signs in spite of being able to read Russian Cyrillic.

    1. Thank you for your prompt reply, Grace! I strive for the right language. It's not easy, but you know what? I'll never mix up "you're" with "your" or write "could of done" like so many US people do. :)

      Where in Greece did you visit?

  3. Good for you, Maria. We visited Mykonos and Athens and wished we could have seen more. Loved the ambiance on Mykonos, though how they live on solid rock I really don't know. And I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the statues and friezes Lord Elgin didn't cart off to England. (The real ones in the museum, not the reproductions on the Acropolis.)
    Thank you so much for visiting Mosiac Moments and contributing a really good question.