Do You Overstep When Editing Fiction? Three Easy Cures

Backhoe cartoon drives across edited manuscript

The other day, I ran across this line in a recent novel by a best-selling American writer (key words are disguised):

His disposition warmed faster than did the gradually dawning day.

I couldn’t help wondering: Did the writer write it that way? And the copyeditor thought it was fine? Or did the editor bully the writer into “correcting” the sentence by adding “did”?

Why would an editor insist on such awkwardness? No doubt from a doubly wrongheaded conviction that fiction isn’t exempt from formal English and that certain familiar wordings are somehow incorrect. But there’s nothing ungrammatical about “His disposition warmed faster than the gradually dawning day.”

I can think of three obvious ways overeager copyeditors get writers into trouble. Let’s take a look.

1. Lack of Training or Knowledge

When copyeditors are still learning, they’re apt to follow fake or outdated rules without looking them up. It takes a few humiliating failures to form the habit of not trusting their gut. In the example above, the editor might have believed it was bad grammar to allow “than” to function as a preposition after a comparative, as in “faster than the day.” (It’s not.) Or maybe they took “than” to be a conjunction, but thought it required an expressed verb. (It doesn’t: “warmed faster than the day” has no need of “did.”)*

Insufficiently trained editors see errors that aren’t there and make things worse by “fixing” them. You may have cringed at lines like “I felt badly about it” or “Firstly, they had the strongest motive,” wondering like me whether the copyeditor understood linking verbs (CMOS 5.170) or had never learned that flat adverbs like “bad” and “first” are just fine without an “-ly” on the end (CMOS 5.160).

Here’s another construction I ran across recently, again from a popular American novelist (and again disguised):

The guard ordered them to return to the alley from which they had a few hours earlier departed.

The primness of this line was jarring within the largely informal prose. I suspect that the writer or editor was avoiding the preposition at the end of the more natural-sounding “alley they had departed from.” I don’t know about you, but instead of causing my heart to thump as they entered the alley, that construction sent me right out of the story for a gawk at the grammar.

The solution: Don’t rewrite or even query without knowing chapter and verse why it is justified.

2. Rigidity

Another copyediting foible is rigidity in applying the stylebook regardless of context or register. Such editors aren’t necessarily misinformed. They’re just too eager to apply rules whether they improve the writing or not.

In Dreyer’s English (New York: Random House, 2019), Benjamin Dreyer demonstrates the appropriate professional response to a phrasing that may be technically substandard but is popularly accepted—or even just beloved by the writer. His example: dialogue tags like “he smiled” or “she shrugged,” which Dreyer calls “awful” (122). “Dialogue can be said, shouted, sputtered, barked, shrieked, or whispered—it can even be murmured—but it can’t be smiled or shrugged” (120). Nonetheless he concludes that “the role of a copy editor is, above all else, to assist and enhance and advise rather than to correct” (122–23). In the case of the dialogue tags, Dreyer accepts that when the writer and presumably many readers are just fine with them, the stylebook is irrelevant.

But how does a copyeditor know where to draw the line? After all, if a fishy usage goes unqueried, it will be the editor’s fault if readers or reviewers point it out.

Many years ago a fellow manuscript editor suggested changing a book title to avoid a preposition at the end. His proposed revision was sadly awkward, and the famous author was so outraged he launched a blast of public humiliation upon the poor editor, causing the editor to withdraw from the project. My heart goes out to my colleague, who went too far instead of simply covering his tail.

The solution: Practice restraint. “NB: Noting the preposition at the end of the title. #justdoingmyjob.”

3. Tin Ear

“This would sound better to me” is the most primal, driving thought of the working copyeditor. In fact, a good editorial ear is a valuable asset, and even beginners can possess one. It allows one to get by on instinct while learning the technicalities of grammar and style. But when an editor’s ear is either undeveloped or hopelessly untrainable (let’s face it—sometimes a tin ear is a tin ear), nothing good can result from their meddling.

Repetition, alliteration, long sentences, comma splices—almost any writing foible that we tend to see as problematic can work brilliantly in the right place, and a good ear will recognize when it works and when it doesn’t. Even so, “what works” is such a personal feeling that editors must be extra cautious to impose it on a writer.

The solution: Know thine ear. See the solution to no. 2 above. Never, ever edit merely because it sounds better to you without knowing why.

* You can read about “than” as a conjunction or preposition after a comparative at CMOS 5.183 and 5.196. Both sections specifically treat “than” followed by a pronoun, but the grammar is the same when it is followed by a noun. See CMOS 5.201 for “than” as a subordinating conjunction after a comparative.

Top image: (foreground) backhoe drawing courtesy of Pixabay; (background) edited manuscript page from Elizabeth Fama, Monstrous Beauty (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012).

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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2 thoughts on “Do You Overstep When Editing Fiction? Three Easy Cures

  1. This is brilliant advice, as always, Carol. My first thought when reading sentences like those in a work by a famous author is a bit different: I wonder whether in fact the author wrote it that way and the editor was either too timid to tinker with the prose of Big Name Author, or was overruled. But I completely agree with you about overzealous or misguided edits. All of us should have your words on a sticky note on our computers: “Never, ever edit merely because it sounds better to you without knowing why.”

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