Copyediting a Novel Manuscript (notes from a field manual)

A better title for this post might be “Lessons in Humility.” I thought I was a fairly decent writer. I thought I had a rudimentary knowledge of sentence construction and grammar. I thought I at least knew how to spell and whether a word is a word.

That was when I still thought takeoff (as in that thing that happens when you’ve fastened your seatbelt) was two words. Same for armrest (one word, not two).

Buck’s a former journalist and has a thick skin when it comes to killing his darlings. Good thing, too, because I hated telling him that the scenes where his hero and heroine go shopping, eat ice cream, and wash dishes together were sweet, but more suited to Harlequin than a manly action thriller. Or that the five pages of what we came to refer to as “the begats,” where various loose ends of characters get neatly tied up stops the flow of the story like a hairy Scottish cow that won’t get out of the middle of the road, and had to go. He took it well, agreed, and assassinated more than 3,000 words. The resulting leaner script no long backs and fills: it sings.

We’ve been both bloodied and bandaged by the FIND function on Word. Two days ago, when we were “sure” the manuscript was now error free and darn near perfect, I said, “Oh, by the way, I forgot one last thing. We need to run our words and phrases list through FIND to see how often they show up. This was a list we scribbled on yellow sticky notes of various words and phrases that “struck our ear” as showing up perhaps a little too often. This project, which I thought might take ten or fifteen minutes, turned into a two-day marathon with exhausted runners.

We began with “grit” and “pluck.” They’re strong, but only showed up twice in 396 pages. Buck adores Kim’s (his female protagonist) “pouty” lips, but three mentions (two on one page) were overkill. FIND is awesome, because it not only tells you how many instances of a particular word or phrase are used, but presents them to you in a sidebar list so you can view each one on the page and decide whether to keep, change or get rid of it altogether.

We were cruising along on this process, feeling fine, until we got to “took a swallow” (22 instances), “nodded” (72), and “chuckled” (78). Buck saw the defeated look in my eye. “No time to weaken now,” he said, and we plunged into the fray and vanquished the buggers.

It’s easy to see why folks who write a book just give up. Completing the manuscript may feel like massive loss of blood, but the copyediting portion of the festivities is the true death of a thousand cuts.

5 thoughts on “Copyediting a Novel Manuscript (notes from a field manual)

  1. I love this post! What perfect collaborators you and Buck are! And I really look forward to reading this book by a manly man who loves his characters and can kill all his darlings. Yes!

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  2. Ha! I can identify. With my own book, sadly. I was not as systematic as you. And in a very good one I just read: the writer loves the word volition. Now that’s a word that sticks out when used more than, say, once or twice. Oh well. Her book survives it. But it would’ve helped to pare a few. I think a good editor can still help, outside eyes, but as much as they catch they never catch it all . . .

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    1. So right, Richard. Is it hard for you now to read a book without your inner copy editor running commentary? Late last night I was listening to Will Patton read James Lee Burke’s 2006 novel, Pegasus Descending. I kept pausing, pulling the ear bud out, and interrupting Buck, who was reading a paperback. “You’ve got to hear this one,” or “He’s really over the top on this one.” One was Burke’s description of a medical examiner as having fat that hung down in sheets around him like a de-boned elephant; others were equally florid, or in other cases brilliantly memorable, or simply physical gestures that were particularly effective. In everyday book reading, now, I have a counter running in the background that tells me how many times the author used this word, phrase or gesture already. What’s really amazing are the errors that show up in commercial “best seller” fiction. It’s hard to wring out all the errors, and everybody’s in a hurry.

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