OK, wait a minute—editing is an art? Has she lost her mind?
If that was your first reaction to the headline of this week’s Publisher’s Note, you’re probably a writer—or an editor. Bear with me, here.
Technically, editing is an art. At least, most college programs treat it that way. Degrees in English and journalism are often Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts instead of science. But that’s not really what I’m talking about.
Some would argue (including me, if we’re talking about nonfiction) that editing is really more a science than an art no matter what the degree says. After all, editing is about following the rules: those of grammar, style and the like. It requires precision and specificity.
But editing fiction, well…, that’s another matter entirely.
In fiction, editing needs to be as much of an art as the writing. Why? Because the writing is art, and if the editor doesn’t treat it that way, she can ruin it.
Imagine if DaVinci had a copyeditor. “This is a nice painting, but her smile isn’t technically correct. Let me just edit that.”
Good writing also paints a picture. And the skilled writer uses punctuation and formatting cues, in part, to make that picture come alive.
Let me give you an example:
Music rose from the street, climbing the side of the building like ivy. Eve stumbled back as the notes hit her window, a thousand tiny sounds swirling together, creating a wave of melody that threatened to drown her.
If the wrong copyeditor got ahold of this, her notes might look like this:
Music rose from the street. , climbing the side of the building like ivy. (Climbing here is a misplaced modifier, modifying street instead of music. And music can’t climb; it’s an inanimate object.) Eve stumbled back as she heard the notes hit strike her window., (although music is a sound wave, it is not a living thing and can’t purposefully hit something) She heard a thousand tiny sounds swirling together, which createding a wave of melody that overwhelmed threatened to drown her. (Same notes as above. More misplaced modifiers as well as incomplete clauses and inappropriate actions.)
And, we’ve now squeezed the life out of the writing.
Because punctuation and formatting in fiction writing is a different language entirely.
For example, when you see ellipses in a newspaper it means the reporter has excised part of a quote to make it more clear (usually to remove either a sidetracked sentence or a bunch of um, well, you knows). In fiction, however, those same ellipses mimic someone trailing off a sentence or thought. So…
Should the copyeditor treat fiction like nonfiction, we’d have a very different (and rather bland) story.
One readers, who just want to get lost in the story and who, for the most part, could give a hoot about misplaced modifiers, would probably put down for good.
This is not to say that writers don’t need copyeditors. They most certainly do (sorry, folks). But a fiction copyeditor’s job is to make sure the copy is free of error, not to change the voice by imposing strict grammar rules (the science) that interfere with the writing (the art).
Here at WMG, we take our tagline, The Home of Great Fiction, quite seriously. We have committed to our authors that we will respect their writing and not sanitize the voice they have so carefully crafted. We’ll watch for those typos and incongruities, sure, but we promise not to kill you with commas.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.