Copy Editing the Great American Novel

The Bellingham, Wa., Herald has an interesting casual Q&A with Dave Cole, a freelance editor who works on a lot of high-end literary fiction, including novels like Denis Johnson‘s Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s forthcoming Nobody Move, and Aravind Adiga‘s The White Tiger. Cole appears to be more of a copy editor than the Robert Gottlieb type the interviewer implies, but he still plays a valuable role. As Andrea Barrett points out, “In addition to tracking down and checking an awful lot of obscure details and spellings and place names, he also did that admirable thing of not fixing what wasn’t broken.”

Cole discusses the hardest part of the gig:

My greatest challenge is to determine what the author’s rules are. You can’t impose grammatical rules on manuscripts when an author deliberately breaks rules (for effect). I have to learn the structure well enough to call attention to it when an author strays. I have to be diplomatic, because you want an author to hear what you’re saying.

A particularly difficult task in the case of Tree of Smoke, I’d imagine. Cole isn’t mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, but then, attentive copy editors rarely get the credit they deserve.

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