I’ve been a writer most of my career and managed to cobble together a living doing so. I’ve had novels published. I’ve written a zillion words for corporate clients. I’ve taught college-level writing. I’ve mentored other writers and have edited other writers’ work.
You’d think at this point I’d have a high degree of competency with the English language. Maybe even consider myself a master craftsman. So when I decided to work with a professional copyeditor/proofreader on my upcoming novel, “The Culling,” I mostly believed I’d be getting a trained set of eyes to help “dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s.” Maybe she’d catch a couple of typos that my beta readers missed. Or she’d point out a usage or grammar issue I might have overlooked.
Last week, I got my proofread manuscript back. It contained 3,001 revisions!
Misplaced commas, missing commas, commas instead of semicolons, colons instead of em dashes, capitalization problems, typos, using the wrong word (physical assertion instead of physical exertion—an innocent mistake), paragraph breaks, a character who has blond hair in one scene and violet hair in another, numerals that should be spelled out, and on and on and on.
There was even a suggestion in the very first paragraph, a paragraph that I’d looked at least one hundred times, an “obvious” correction that embarrassed me and I should have caught:
I suppose it is obvious that shoes get worn on your feet. At least she added a smiley emoji.
The rule I violated most was this one that my proofreader helpfully pointed out:
“You need a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so) that separates two independent clauses (complete sentences). If the second clause doesn’t make sense by itself due to its lack of subject, the comma isn’t needed.”
Here are a couple of those sentences that she corrected by adding commas where I had none:
Admittedly, I underuse the comma. So did Hemingway—and that worked out pretty well for him (until he committed suicide). What happens is that I gain momentum which leads to me writing a lot of sentences that string together clauses with the word ‘and.’
On the other hand, I have a bit of a crush on some of the less popular punctuation marks: the colon, for instance. But I had to be reminded of this grammar rule: “Colons should only be used when what precedes them is a complete sentence.”
What a stickler for rules! Who knew the Chicago Manual of Style was so rules-based!
I spent days going through the manuscript, checking every suggested revision. Most of them I accepted, but some I didn’t because my voice is my voice, my style is my style. Oops, I needed a semicolon after the word voice or the word ‘and’ after the comma. Sorry to confuse you, dear reader.
The most important thing in writing is to be understood. And to not be boring. And to not make egregious mistakes that cause readers to doubt you. But in fiction, the most important aspect is the voice. The voice is what attracts or repels the reader. The voice is what makes a piece of writing unique.
Most of the suggestions I accepted, but I had to stand my ground when I felt the rules were compromising the narrative voice. But am I ever glad I decided to work with a professional. Even professionals–especially this one–need professionals.