The Inevitable Comma

by Morgan Gallagher

Using an editor is a scary business. Having spent much of my adult life rubbing shoulders with writers in the bar at SF conventions, I’ve heard a lot of comments about editors. Very little of it positive. I’ve listened to Harlan Ellison rant about editors changing his work when they weren’t qualified to… well, do check out Harlan’s thoughts on the matter for yourself! I’ve talked to James White, at length, about editors, and whilst he did have an excellent editor at Tor that he both admired and was fond of, he always told me that the trick to being published was to do the editing work yourself. We once spoke about rejection letters, and how he’d never had one, and the secret, he said, was to do all the work yourself. So there was little to reject… or edit… once you had submitted. Wield your own blue pencil. This was, basically, Harlan’s stance too – the writer could do the work and craft the words themselves. The epic depths of the stupidity of the editor, is always plumbed by mention of what was once done by a hapless editor to Damon Knight. His short, ‘Eripmav,’ featured a vegetable sucking vampire from another planet. The entire short was a shaggy dog story, leading to the terrible dénouement, that the veggie vampire was finally killed by a steak to the heart. Said hapless editor thought he’d spotted a mistake that no one else had, and changed it to ‘stake’ just before print, thus killing the story with his very own stake to the heart.

Another editor anecdote comes via a very well known children’s author, whom I cannot name for reasons about to become clear. Whilst staying with her we chatted about editors. I asked how she coped with hers, and she confided she ignored most things. She showed me the next day, that when her typewritten manuscript was returned for correction, she instructed her secretary to retype the same sentence, cut it out onto a strip, and staple it over the marked-for-change original. It was then sent back to the editor, who would then allow the correction through. She showed me one such ‘edit’ and the written comment beside it saying “So much better!” and sure enough, when you lifted the flap of stapled down addition, the exact same sentence was written underneath….

Therefore, it was with great trepidation, I sent my final manuscript of my first novel, Changeling, off to a professional editor. I’d always taken on board the words of the writers I admired, both as people and writers, and worked hard to do most of the content editing for myself. “Murder Your Innocents” is a dictum I take seriously. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I needed an editor, I was just worried about all the bad editor rap I’d been in contact with. And the ego thing, of course. When my publisher suggested I get the final manuscript edited, and suggested a friend of hers who was very good on spotting mistakes on grammar, I bristled and said “Mistakes!” in true Lady Newbury style (“A handbag.”) My work wouldn’t have mistakes, I edited as I went along!

When the manuscript finally returned, it took me a couple of days to set aside the courage to open it. Just In Case. I didn’t peek once: I left it until I was actually going to sit and methodically work through my version of the manuscript, with Toni’s version. It felt like going to the dentist… something you had to do, but dreaded, nonetheless.

Imagine my shock, when not only did I immediately find her comments and corrections invaluable, I was actually enjoying the process within the hour. I posted on Twitter, within two hours of starting the match by match edit that a good editor was worth their weight in gold.
And she is.

There are two aspects to the journey I was undertaking, when I worked through the edits, and I’ll delineate them clearly here. First of all, on the surface level, there was the seemingly simple process of actually spotting errors in the typing. Not the writing, the physical getting it on the page. Things you simply can not spot on your own. Especially, if like me, you are severely dyslexic. Missing words. That was a shock – how many words were simply missing. Just Not There. Words my mind read into the sentence when I did my own edit check, because as the writer I knew they should be there. So I saw them. But they weren’t there. Toni spotted at least a dozen, if not more, missing words. And then there were the homophones, or transcribed words. The endless ‘them’ words that were actually ‘then’ words. I’m confident that only a professional editor would have spotted all of then… did you spot that one? The mind reads as much by context, as by sight. If you didn’t spot the ‘then’ I just put instead of ‘them’… you need a really good editor.

A deeper layer on the actually mistakes level, was the language use level. On a word geek level. I’d used ‘humming and hawing’ as a description. Toni had edited it and stated it was ‘hemming and hawing.’ I instantly rushed to my reference books (ie, the internet): she was right! I fell in love with her, word geek to word geek, on that edit. A mutual attraction as it turned out, for a hundred thousand words later, I’d used “to all intents and purposes” and my editor had written a note saying how much she adored me for using the phrase correctly.

Ah, word geek love. ‘Tis a profound thing.

And really, that’s the basis of the other level of pleasure, that reading Toni’s edit gave me. The sheer thrill of like minds doing something they both love: play with words. Such a boost. The words were the issue, not my ego, not Toni’s ego. We both wanted the same thing: clarity and polish. We met in the middle. And we met, respectfully. This is vital, to the writer, and really is the base of all the fears that I’d been listening to all those years, from other writers. Writers who had suffered from editors who did not respect their work, or respect the words. I suspected I was in safe hands, when Toni’s comments about her edits, started with “Take or leave what I’ve suggested.” And what she did edit, and how she chose to speak to me upon them, never left me feeling she didn’t understand either what I was trying to achieve, or how she could suggest an improvement.

The comma, and how she reacted to my comments, and her comments, about commas… says it all. Commas are, within some boundaries, utterly subjective. I, personally, have a great deal of time for the Oxford comma. (We met once, in a bar in Cambridge.) Toni happily stated that commas were so subjective, just to go with what I wanted to go with. As a result of her saying this, I promptly got rid of a lot of commas. I’m a drama teacher, I know that a comma is a pause of breath, literally. But the written text does not need as many pauses to breathe, as the spoken word. Goodness, did I get rid of a lot of commas! No matter how individual the comma is there was just sense to getting rid of so many of them, when they were not needed.

And the needed part…is the part where having a really good editor was liberating, and enjoyable. When faced with a challenge to my own phrasing, that it was clumsy, or could be done better, to perhaps the comma was a comma too far… you find yourself standing back from your work, and analysing yourself through another’s eyes. You engage in a discussion with yourself. Is this my style? Do I say it that way, as it is me that is speaking? Is that authentic to me? If I change this, is it still my voice?

As it happened, with me, the answer was usually to accept the proposed edit. Sometimes, just sometimes, I did say it the way I wanted to. It may appear clumsy. It may have been a touch too colloquial. It may not be perfect… but it was authentic to me.

Most times the question was actually “Is it worth hanging on to this, for my ego, if it confuses the reader?” No, it wasn’t. If it genuinely confuses, there has to be real reason for it to be there.
Just having this conversation with myself, testing my own voice, and seeing what was, and what wasn’t, negotiable… was a wonder. I’d never done it before on this level. And I found it refreshing and invigorating. Toni’s edits held up a little hand mirror, for me to glance into, and see if I could see myself peeking through the text. Sometimes I could, lots of times I couldn’t. Most edits were accepted and worked with. The few I rejected, I knew I had rejected for good reason, and not for caprice, or annoyance that someone had dared to correct my work! I knew I was speaking to my audience more clearly when I accepted the suggested edit. It was exhilarating.

Editors walk between two worlds, they are neither writer, nor reader. But they are… well my editor is, at least… a conduit between the two. Mine is worth her weight in gold. Do find yourself a really good editor, it is worth the investment; financial and emotional.

However, I do have to caution you that respect works both ways. I do wield my blue pencil with vigour. I do work my sizable backside off, trying to make it as perfect as it can be, before I send it off. If you are lazy, and treat your editor as a spell checker… if you expect your editor to do the writing for you. Well, then you will most certainly get the editor you deserve, and it will be a great misteak.