I earn my bread as an editor, so this story not only enrages me but makes me ashamed of my profession. Helen DeWitt, one of the finest authors of our day, fought a losing battle for her own style in her own book, even after insisting on a contract that “gave me the last word on spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and so on.”

It’s not a question of justifying what’s in a text by appealing to precedent; you do what is right for the text.
I say: Look at Frank O’Hara! Look at don marquis! This is America, where there is this idea that playing around with punctuation and usage is part of the vernacular, the AMERICAN way of doing things…

But they wouldn’t listen to her, because they worship the Chicago Manual of Style. Now, I love the Chicago Manual of Style—it’s an extremely useful tool for normalizing text. But—listen up, colleagues—not all text needs to be normalized. Capeesh? Sheesh.


  1. Thanks, Hat, and be it known that when in your comments section I refer to the Idiot Copy Editor God (or ICEG) (may his noodliness ever decrease), I absolutely exempt you.

  2. Thank you!

  3. I think the problem was partly one of management. The editor had said he was happy for British spelling to be used except in the two American flashbacks, and the copy-editor knew this was all right with him — so they did not start out insisting on CMOS all the way. As it turned out, though, there were a few issues where they felt they were going out on a limb (not spelling out numbers below 100, for instance). The real problem, though, I think, was that the copy-editor had invested weeks of her time in mulling over the text and achieving what she thought was an acceptable result. When she got it back from the production manager, with instructions to override the author’s mark-up in particular cases, she seems to have gone mad and simply gone through reinstating all her earlier decisions.
    A difficulty for the author is that it is not necessarily the case that the typescript first handed in must go to press with NO CHANGES. There may very well be oversights and downright mistakes; it’s good to have someone come to the text with a fresh eye. If the editor wants to make a case for systematic changes, though, that discussion should take place early on, before the copy-editor gets to work. The thing that was hard to deal with was the way everyone offered easy assurances, to begin with, that proposed changes were only suggestions — and then tried to smuggle them all into the published text behind my back.

  4. If the editor wants to make a case for systematic changes, though, that discussion should take place early on, before the copy-editor gets to work.
    Exactly, and what baffles me is that they resisted this obvious idea.

  5. As a copy-editor, I do occasionally live and breathe the A.P. style book, but at least I know to have some self-restraint. The creative freedom of the author is vital to ensure that a book has the potential to be good. It won’t ensure the book is good (oy, believe me), but at least there is a possibility that it will be good.

  6. John Emerson says

    I designed, edited, and copy-edited my own goddamn self-published book, and it took years off my life even though I didn’t even do a very good job.

  7. SnowLeopard says

    I second the anonymous commenter who suggested bringing in the lawyer before things get ugly. It’s what we’re here for, and believe me, we understand the importance of punctuation.

  8. In the end, though, our best protection has to be a general move away from the worship of correctness for its own sake promulgated by people like Lynne Truss. In this particular instance, there was a clause in my contract protecting the text — but the clause was not my lawyer’s idea, it was inserted at my request. Many authors publishing a novel for the first time, knowing nothing about the publication process, would not think to ask for a change to their contract if their lawyer did not suggest it. (Left to his own devices my lawyer would have confined his attention to percentages of proceeds of foreign rights sales and the like.)
    At the risk of stating the obvious, there is something wrong if works of fiction are automatically restored to a CMOS default unless guaranteed special legal protection.
    I later described this incident to a British agent, who explained that publishers were normally understanding. The American copy-editor of one of her clients had sent the client a list of 300 words that she thought American readers might find hard to understand; the client had gone through the list and in the end agreed to change 4 words. So the publishers were understanding, yes, but they did not start with the assumption that they should simply present American readers with the text as written by a British author.

  9. lhat,
    Hey, come on, we know a lot of editors are frustrated writers and love throwing the book at successful writers–plus editors are supposed to be wiseasses–like taking a call from a writer, “Hey, Ed, how long is an average lizard in North America?” “OK, give me a minute to get that information for you and I’ll call you back.”
    On the other hand, we know people who edit because it used to be, and I think still is, an easy way for hopeless actors and musicians (myself included) and rejected playwrights to make a better-than-decent-living in a city like the Big Wormy Apple–
    As you know, I was one time living on Snickers bars and free beers from this bar in which I played the piano–every, God, Sunday afternoon, in a bar where they really hated music but the owner desired it–he thought it gave his place class–“You don’t have to play very loud,” he once told me, “just act like your playing”–I got a twenty dollar tip one Sunday and blew it all on tons of junk food, enough to keep starvation away from my door for another couple of weeks–I was two months behind in my rent–the IRS was harassing me–my girlfriend at the time flew the coop on me because I couldn’t afford her anymore–I mean, I was low; I was lower than low.
    I did, however, have good credentials as an former editorial director for a financial institution (please, don’t get me started)–and miracle of miracles, one Sunday afternoon I looked up from my “quiet” piano and I saw a elegant woman sitting at the bar drinking but also working on a stack of 8 1/2 x 11 manuscript pages–and I can spot a manuscript page a mile off–so I walked over to this woman and said, “Excuse me, but what are you working on there; are you a writer?” “Oh no, but thank you, no I’m an editor”–“Well, golly bejeezus,” I charmed, “So am I, one of the best in the city.” She said, “If you are, bring your resume to my office tomorrow morning and if you fit the bill I’ll put you to work immediately.” She just happened to be in need of a lot of editors just at that particular moment.
    Thanks to that chance meeting, I got the editing job the next day–and I went from pauper to prince by the end of that week when I got my first check–and I started off making $30 an hour and soon, to hell with playing the piano in a bar on Sunday afternoons–I’d even thought about doing an outdoor tapdance routine in Soho–you know begging coins, I was so desperate, but, no, this gentle but mad woman got me into editing and for the next 12 years that’s what I did–and, listen to this, I made over a million bucks during that time–AS AN EDITOR.
    The most I had ever made as a published writer was $700 an assignment working for the Catholic Church–As a musician, forget it, I was lucky if I could get 25 bucks a gig–but as an editor, wow, it was the path to my easy street. I remember tha first day I asked, “Where’s your Chicago?” and she said, “We don’t use Chicago here.” Whoaa. I couldn’t believe it. Oh, it was used but not so honored as at other places I had worked–
    I remember fun times we had emailing the Chicago Manual and telling them about errors in their revered pages.
    That’s the power of a knowledgeable editor–and damn right, what do writers know about writing? Remember, Faulkner’s editrix at Scribner’s tried to change all of his contractions and circle some of his words and wrote “not a word, change.” Hey, that’s power. So power to the editor! Shame on you, language, for being ashamed of your profession and thank Zeus and Saturn you’re not a proofreader.
    Ur fiend,

  10. It would be interesting to know what percentage of text, measured in some reasonable way, passes through professional editors before it is read, and especially how that has changed in recent years. I would guess that 20 years ago, it was almost 0%, but now with the internet and text messaging, it’s probably very different. And how will this affect attitudes towards normalization over the next generation?

  11. Chicago Manual of Style may be help to normalize the text, but the important factor is author have to given freedom to do whatever they want to do with their books. After all, books are authors creation, and they should have more right to decide, last word.

  12. michael farris says

    Massively off-topic: You’ve done posts on blind translations before, so I thought of you when I came across a video blind translation of a song from a Dutch language children’s show (wonderful, but not safe for work)

  13. michael farris says

    Actually, here’s the link to the original:

  14. Jim Salant says

    My copy-editor changed every instance of “over” to “more than” — and this was in a drug memoir. Apparently it’s “incorrect” for a twenty-two-year-old recounting his experiences with crystal meth to say that somebody is “over six feet tall” — it must be “more than.”
    I had only a week before the deadline; this was my first (and only) book; and, to be honest, I was too overwhelmed and intimidated by the process to demand that such a small change be fixed. Now I read those parts and cringe.

  15. Jim Salant says

    I hasten to add that my editor was actually pretty awesome, and that if I had asked for those changes, she would’ve made them.

  16. Copyeditors are presumably paid to flag all deviations from Style Manual, so you can’t blame them for doing their jobs. The question is (as in Helen’s case) will the publisher relent when one has a reason to deviate from the Manual?
    With my new book, the copyeditor was absolutely terrific. Having said that, I did run afoul of the rule that one should put quotation marks around “words as words.” Well, my book is about the history and meaning of legal language. If you apply that rule strictly to a book about language (or my book at any rate) there will be so many quotation marks, it looks awful. In my case, the publisher agreed and I had no problem.
    I’m astonished by Helen’s story of the 300 words that Americans won’t understand. Yikes. I’d argue that what readers want is the author’s authentic voice: British authors ought to sound British.

  17. Jim Salant says

    You’re right, of course; it just irks me (probably because it was my fault), and when I read the post I saw an opportunity to vent.

  18. Venting is a time-honored tradition here at LH. (Hell, one reason I started the thing is so I’d have somewhere to vent.)

  19. Michael Farris says

    “I’d argue that what readers want is the author’s authentic voice: British authors ought to sound British.”
    Define “British”. If you mean “Americans ideas of what British people sound like (an “upper class” accent and a few charming regionalisms)” then yes. If you mean the real thing, the way everyday British people actually speak among themselves, then I’m not so sure.
    IME, which may not be entirely typical, most Americans react pretty negatively to most forms of pure, real, everyday English as used in Britain. Recently on a trip to Portugal while waiting to get thru passport control I found myself next to a large group deplaning from Manchester. After about three minutes I wanted to take Drastic Measures.

  20. In this case it’s clear from internal evidence that Helen’s editor was English, so presumably he would have been aware of British/American language differences.

  21. Ginger Yellow says

    Obviously it’s too late now, but I doubt Helen would have needed to actually bring the lawyers in. Given the clause in the contract, the threat alone should have been enough. Lawyers themselves are usually only necessary when there’s wiggle room.

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