To stet or not to stet


I read an article recently in The Guardian about how the UK and US versions of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell have large sections which are different to each other.  Mitchell is quoted as saying he ‘didn’t go to the trouble of making sure that the American changes were applied to the British version (which was entering production by that point probably) and vice versa’.  To be honest I wasn’t that surprised.

I have just come to the end of about four months of checking copy edits and making proofreading decisions for my novel, Swimming Lessons which will be published early in 2017. The work calls for precision, meticulousness and reading the whole book somewhere between ten and twenty times, and that’s after the main edits have been signed off.

For me, the issue is complicated because I have different publishers in both countries: Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin in the UK, and Tin House in the US. And both publishers have their own schedules, their own ways of doing things, their own style guides.

Juliet Annan, my editor at Fig Tree, passes copy editing and proofreading management to a Penguin Editorial Manager, while at Tin House, this process is managed by my editor, Masie Cochran (although both publishing houses use an external copy editor and proof readers).

Fig Tree bought Swimming Lessons first and consequently its publishing process started and ended sooner than Tin House’s, which meant that I wasn’t able to work on the text for both countries at the same time.

You might think copy editing and proofreading would be as simple as checking for errors and changing British English spelling and phrases to US English spelling and phrases. But writing and editing books is never that easy. Swimming Lessons is set in England, and I am an English author, so quite rightly Masie didn’t think for example that ‘pavement’ should be changed to ‘sidewalk’, or even ‘colour’ to ‘color’. (Although a fellow author who wrote a book set in England told me that her US editor did want her to change ‘pound’ to ‘dollar’. She resisted.)

This is the process:

  1. I work with my editors to make the book as good as it can be in terms of structure, plot, character; all those things that make a novel a novel
  2. The manuscript is sent to a copy editor who feeds back changes which I work on or reject (with the editor getting involved in major decisions)
  3. The manuscript is laid out as a book
  4. The book is sent to two proof readers
  5. The copy editor (in the UK) or Masie (in the US) checks the proof readers’ changes
  6. I’m sent a print out of the book on A4 paper (UK), or a pdf (US)
  7. I accept or reject the proof readers’ changes (involving the copy editor or Masie in any large decisions) either actually on the page, or in a Word document

As I write this list of actions, it still sounds simple. But there are up to 10 changes per uk-proofreading-picpage in a novel that’s approximately 307 pages long, with over 86,000 words. And the changes made by the UK will often be completely different to those made by the US.

And because of the different publishing schedules, I don’t work on just one document for both countries; I work on two. The UK copy editing and proofreading changes for Swimming Lessons were finished and approved (or not) by me a few months ago, while I finished the work for Tin House earlier this week. Penguin’s copy is ready to go to print. It is up to me to decide which of the changes we incorporated in the UK version should get transferred to the Tin House copy and vice versa. Of course, it’s easy with spelling mistakes and major inconsistencies, but what about the grammar? Commas go in, and commas come out; colons change to semicolons and back again; speech marks are double or single, titles of books are italicised or they’re not…

But it’s also not just up to me. There are the style-guides to remember. These are documents the publishing houses use to create consistency across their own books. Interestingly, Penguin’s style-guide even for UK books mandates the use of z’s: realize, recognize, authorize. But because Masie and I decided that Swimming Lessons is an English book by an English author, we’ve used realise, recognise and authorise. So oddly, the book will have some US spelling in the British version, and some UK spelling in the American version.

The copy editor and proof readers at Tin House also use the Merriam-Webster dictionary for clarification. So, the UK version will have ‘sing-song’, whereas for the US version Merriam-Webster suggests ‘singsong’; and it’s up to me whether to agree that change or not. What about ‘candlestick maker’ or ‘candlestickmaker’, ‘mid-sentence’ or ‘midsentence’, ‘fish-like’ or ‘fishlike’? And on and on.

Luckily I enjoy dealing with this level of detail. (I prefer editing to writing a first draft.) But my spelling and knowledge of grammar is poor. When I’m deciding what changes to accept and which to reject, or ‘stet’, I try to consider clarity, consistency, syntax, (my) style, and rhythm before I think about whether the grammar is correct. (I rejected every ‘whom’ where it would have been technically correct in favour of the ‘who’ that I wrote.) And my overall objective when we’re down this deep in the text is to create words, and sentences and paragraphs that keep the reader reading.

If you’re a writer, let me know how copy editing and proofreading works for you, and if you’re a reader, did you know this already? I’d love to hear what you think.

But if you do read Swimming Lessons when it’s published and you spot any typos or grammatical errors, actually I don’t want to know.


Ten Eleven Ideas for Revising a Novel

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about how get the first draft of a novel completed, and now I’m writing about how I and some other writers go about revising that draft. I’m talking about working on the big changes – those whopping great plot holes or characters that disappear half-way through. A post on polishing is also now available to read. And please do comment below with any other ideas.

  1. Give yourself a break from the manuscript. If you’re working to a deadline or you’re a very impatient person like me, this is easier said than done. I often don’t manage more than a couple of weeks before I’m back tinkering. But Vanessa Lafaye, author of Summertime has it right: “When I finish my first draft I’m so immersed in the story that I’m myopic. I have to walk away and leave it, ideally for about 3 months, before I can return and revise. It’s only the distance that gives me the clarity I need to see what works and what doesn’t. It has to become unfamiliar, as if it was written by someone else.”
  2. Print out and read. I don’t print my manuscript until I’m much further along – really at the polishing stage, because I probably wouldn’t be able to see the text for red pen, but lots of writers print it out after the first draft is complete, to look for plot holes or to add in new strands. Terry Stiastny, author of Acts of Omission says, “I have to print out the original draft in hard copy, it doesn’t work for me, looking at it on screen. (Top tip: take it to a copy shop to print. Cheaper and less stressful than using dozens of printer cartridges at home.)”
  3. Print out and physically move scenes or chapters around. I often have to move scenes and chapters, but I do this on my laptop, whereas plenty of writers do it another way. “With my first novel, A Brighter Fear,” says Kerry Drewery, “I ended up printing the whole thing off, stapling the chapters together and physically moving them around.” I’m sure this is a good way of seeing the novel in its entirety.
  4. Summarise and justify each chapter. As I work my way through the manuscript I write a summary at the start of each chapter or scene. This not only includes what is happening in the chapter, but what the point of it is: how it moves the story along or what it reveals about a character. The chapter has to justify its place in the manuscript. If it can’t I revise it or cut it. Author, Sarah Jasmon works in a similar way: “I make lists with a brief description of each chapter so I can keep track of what is going on. With The Summer of Secrets, I went through a lot of structural changes in the first proper edit. The original draft had many scenes where a character was remembering, and I was able to re-shape and move them so these things actually happened, rather than just being recalled. Writing out a chapter by chapter overview, by hand, helped me connect back with the book as a whole.”
  5. Plot each beat. This is a similar point to the one above, but rather than writing a summary above each chapter, Jo Bloom, author of Ridley Road, plots every beat on a separate card and pins them to a cork board. “I can then see sequences,character development etc and know what I need to work on.”
  6. Spreadsheets or Word documents for plot lines, flashbacks and timelines. Most writers seem to work with lists for checking details, whether these are the colour-coded sophisticated spreadsheets loved by Jason Hewitt (author of Devastation Road) or one of my simple tables in Word. “I give each major bit of scene or beat a brief name and put it all in a spreadsheet table,” says Jason. “I then colour code the different plot lines or ongoing flashbacks. When I print this off I have the whole novel on a single sheet of paper (albeit in very small font) and I can see quickly which plot lines need spreading out a bit more or reshuffling. I love a good spreadsheet!” For my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I created a timeline table in Word with dates down one side and characters along the top. Then I could keep track of what age they were at any given date, as well as making sure I remembered birthdays, Christmas and even any world events that might affect them. Alison Layland, author of Someone Else’s Conflict works in a similar way: “When I was rewriting my novel I moved a chapter from the middle of the book to the beginning and although all the elements were still there it was amazing how it affected the continuity on so many levels. In the end I created a table in Word with a row for each chapter, including dates, times and events, as well as point of view, so I could make sure I maintained a good balance, and see better where to put in the flashbacks for best effect.
  7. Write a To Do list. As simple as this sounds, it is the thing I work most closely with when I’m revising. I create a Word document of all the issues I find as I come across them. And then I start working through those issues, adding to the list as I go, because each change will always have ramifications elsewhere in the manuscript. For my second book, I started with ten major points I needed to work on, and as I went through these, I added to the bottom of the list, so that in the end there were over 50 major changes I had to make.
  8. Separate edits for different things. My second novel is set by the sea, and there are lots of descriptions of the water and the landscape. I did a separate edit just for these – to make sure they were spaced evenly and didn’t repeat themselves. You can do this for any element in a novel. For example, Jason Hewitt does a separate edit for each of the main characters in his books. “I find that this is easier than trying to juggle the motives and characteristics of each character at the same time.”
  9. Lift out one narrative strand and work on it alone. One step further than the point above, is lifting out a strand completely. Our Endless Numbered Days has two time periods – the time in the forest, and the time when Peggy, the narrator is back in London. The London chapters come in between about every two forest chapters. At one point I was getting so confused with the London timeline that I lifted out all the London chapters, put them in another document and edited them as one sequence so I could be sure they worked consecutively, before slotting them back in.
  10. Seeding mis-directions and clues This is a really good tip. It’s usually only after the first draft is finished that you can go back and drop in hints, foreshadowing and clues. Martine Bailey author of The Penny Heart says, “Once I’ve decided how the novel ends I go back and I seed the clues and mis-directions.”
  11. What to think about. Okay, so point eleven isn’t really a tip on how to revise a novel, but here are some of the major things I try to think about during the revising stage: plot holes, character motivation, character arcs, justifying chapters and scenes, bringing out themes and motifs, building tension and pace, managing the passing of time, making sure plot lines are tied up (not necessarily neatly, but don’t leave them hanging), foreshadowing, clues and mis-directions, character and location names.

Let me know your tips for revision in the comments below.