August 20, 2008 by Tracey S. Rosenberg
Lev Raphael talks about dealing with a, shall we say, overenthusiastic copyeditor. It involves a lot of screaming and resharpening of the pencil he uses to write ‘STET’ (meaning, ‘keep this exactly the way I wrote it’).
Not only did the copyeditor keep editing Raphael’s style, which is not part of the job, but couldn’t get the fact-checking correct, either.
Given that I’m writing about the same general period as Raphael, I’m feeling nervous about this, if only because I have done my homework, and if there’s anything I’ve discovered it’s that research sources contradict each other. Sometimes this is due to perspective – see Hugh Trevor-Roper’s excellent introduction to the 7th edition (I think – the 50-year-anniversary edition) of The Last Days of Hitler – and sometimes because, as a friend of mine pointed out yesterday, no one is standing to one side, holding a clipboard, monitoring troop movements on a street-by-street basis. There are no objective sources – only what individuals see (or historians glean), and interpret.
Even what seem to be simple facts can be tough to pin down. Example: when does person x arrive at place y? I have two different possibilities and no way to verify which one’s correct. As a writer, then, I have to make that call on my own – it so happens that the 7th is a better day than the 8th because of the character’s personal timeline, so I’m going to go with the 7th. But a copyeditor can legitimately come along and say, hang on, this highly respected source says the 8th. (And so can the reader – and when you write about Nazi Germany you know that there are people who will know these things better than you do. I’m just hoping that being able to back up my historical choices will be enough, but I have no illusions about this – people will tell me I’m wrong no matter what.) Meanwhile, I’ve dug into the stacks of several university libraries, and I can only hope that my future copyeditor has the same depth of sources available, because while public libraries are wonderful places, their holdings simply can’t mirror what I used.
Probably some displacement going on here – I am not exactly at the point where a copyeditor is going to start critiquing the manuscript. But I will definitely be hanging on to my folder of research notes. No idea what to do if someone flattens the prose style, but I expect this is the kind of thing it’s nice to talk to one’s agent about.