Wrangling With Copyeditors

07/20/2011 12:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 19, 2011

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published. I liked the phrase so much I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn't life be perfect?

That was before I had my first wrangle with a copyeditor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn't their native language. Like many immigrants, they "translated" from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copyeditor didn't get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I told this story to said he knew an author so enraged by rampant lack of imagination on the part of a copyeditor that he just wrote across page one, "Stet the whole goddamned thing." I could never do that, because copyeditors do catch real problems, but I've come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher's copyeditor aggressively changing everything -- my style, my syntax, my vocabulary--to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as "a good word," as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn't using it strictly correctly. But after nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays and articles, I have my own ideas about what's correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn't spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such literalistic, tone-deaf copyediting.

And yes, I mean pissed off, not annoyed, vexed, steamed, put out, or irritated.