I like to think I know my way around a sentence. After all, I spend most of my waking hours reading or writing something (yeah, I’m really fun to be around). I have an English degree and am a fully paid-up grammar pedant. Despite this, there are hundreds of rules in English that I’m still not sure of. This ignorance has been thrown into sharp relief by the experience of going through a copy-edit.
A copy-edit, you say? What is this ‘copy-edit’ you speak of? The best way to describe it is probably one step up from a proof-read – consistencies, errors, recurring grammar issues – and one down from a full-on structural edit.
A copy-edit is nowhere near as painful as an actual edit. No need to make heart-swooping culls and patches, no need to perform open-heart surgery on the plot. The most difficult thing I’ve had to sort out is the location of the door in one of my character’s flats. So more like removing an ingrown toenail than having your spleen removed. It’s hard work all the same though; the kind of manual drudgery that goes into writing a book after the creative energy has burned out. The slogging, page-by-page work that everyone has to do. What’s interesting is to discover all the grammar tics I don’t understand. I don’t know the difference between ‘t’ and ‘ed’ past-participle endings, except that I’m getting them wrong. I don’t know when to use a hyphen and when to use a dash, or even what the difference is, or where they are on a keyboard. Is it makeup or ‘make-up’? Does the Tube have a capital ‘t’ or not? Is golden syrup a brand-name? It’s a morass (morasse?) of mistakes.
On the whole I’ve found being copy-edited a humbling experience. When you spend however-many years writing the book and showing it to no one (no-one?), the idea of a team’s worth of expertise being focused (focussed?) on your wayward prose is astonishing. Someone has cared enough to work through my beast of a book and remember that on page 4 I said there was a buzzer, while on page 107 I said someone knocked on the heroine’s door. They know the threads running through the book better than I do, almost.
During the week I was also invited to the party of my brilliant publishers, Headline (I know, I know – feel free to hate me now). It was indeed a swanky do, with cocktails, dancing, and herds of glamorous people (those skulking wide-eyed in the corner were the writers). It made me realise what a huge team is behind every professionally published (professionally-published?) book that appears on the shelves. Editors, assistants, copy-editors, proof-readers, publicists, designers. Although my book is still under wraps, a whole array of people already read it months ago. And it’s being worked on behind the scenes every day – cover, flap copy, proofing, copy-edits, and so on.
That’s why, despite rumblings about self-publishing, everyone really wants to be picked up by a commercial house. So, if you think your book is finished, ask yourself – is it really ready to be passed round on submission, read by this expert team? Does it speak for itself or do you have to explain it? (Because you can’t) For every book with a consistent spelling of focused/focussed, someone did that. You don’t corral a vast scrappy MS into a published book by yourself. Rather you get a makeover for your prose, a scrub-up, a Challenge Anneka-style renovation of its rickety struts, dry rot, and dodgy wiring. And hopefully if people read my book and are not confused by the location of the door in Charlotte’s flat, the team’s work is done.