"Leave My Prose Alone": The Resistant Writer


by Carol Saller

“Please tell the copyeditor to leave my prose alone.” That’s an actual author request I encountered in a newly arrived manuscript. I looked at the first few pages. The content was complex, phrasing idiosyncratic, punctuation random.

A more mature and compassionate person would have recognized a writer who’d been frightened and damaged by a previous copyediting experience. That person would have recommended assigning him to an especially sensitive manuscript editor—perhaps to my colleague who adopts greyhounds. Instead, in a huff, I suggested we fling that puppy to our most junior assistant for a once-over typo check.

My reaction (of which I’m not proud) raises a question for writers who resist copyediting: which is worse—a bad copyedit, or none at all? At least with a bad one, you can pick and choose what to accept. And consider—you might get a reader who improves your work and teaches you something. Are you open to that?

A good copyeditor can win over a resistant writer. Approaching him as we would an abused puppy, we try to build trust. We ask intelligent questions that express understanding and respect. We assure him that our work will be transparent and the editing negotiable. We emphasize collaboration. (Okay—I don’t know anything about puppies.)

When I was little, a lifeguard saved me from drowning. By the time he dumped me on the sand, I was scratched and bruised. (I’m sure it’s not easy to ferry a kid in full panic mode a hundred yards.) Although I soon got over the little hurts, I was left with a lifelong fear of the water. I imagine that in the same situation, our haughty writer friend would be left with a lifelong fear of lifeguards, confident that he could swim and blaming them for the bruises.

Writers who believe their writing is faultless and perceive a copyeditor’s work as an intrusion are missing out. Not that copyeditors save lives. But sometimes they do save a book.

Piece crossposted with The Subversive Copy Editor