Let me explain something here, because it might be important to the story. See, my day job is as a copyeditor. It’s how I pay my bills. At night, I come home and edit for individual authors and small presses. That’s a lot of editing. Add to this that I also have a tendency to take on more than I can handle, and you’ll understand why I started looking for an editing partner about a year ago. I’ve met a ton of people who call themselves editors. And quite frankly, they are not. Selecting stories for a book, spotting one typo and fixing it, and then just letting it go to print without once cracking The Chicago Manual of Style does not an editor make. But I did have one writer friend who, when we’d go back and forth on a story, would ask things like “Can you just look at this and make sure I’m interpreting CMOS 6.6 correctly?” I knew I had my man. Rob was willing to do the work to get things exactly right, and who seemed to relish in conversations about things like whether it should be “satphone,” “sat-phone,” or “sat phone.” (Conclusion: since it’s not in the dictionary, and cell phone is two words, and cell is short for cellular [unlike “smartphone,” one word] and sat is short for satellite, it’s two words, no hyphen. Sat phone. We spent an hour coming to that decision.)
So at S & L Editing, our process goes something like this: a manuscript will come in, Rob and I will discuss who is going to take the lead on it, and from there, that editor starts, and the other one follows up behind. On Tricks and Treats, I took the lead. And on page twenty-seven came a real thrill in my editing career: I was about to edit Mark Twain.
Yes, the Mark Twain. The one you hear about all the time. Tom Sawyer and famous jumping frogs and long-dead Connecticut resident. That guy. It was thrilling! I hoped I didn’t mess it up.
Now, when you’re editing a famous dead writer, the rule is really to be as hands-off as possible. It’s not like you can point out a continuity error in a story and have him fix it. So this was straight proofreading, just checking to see if any of the typography rules had changed since ol’ Samuel Clemens’s day. I shot Rob a message: I’m. Proofing. Mark. Twain. This is surreal! He gave me a thumbs-up. I don’t think he appreciated the moment . . . until it was his turn.
A week later, I got this message from Rob: I’m reading Twain’s story now. I don’t want to touch anything.
Me: Just look over the punctuation and spelling, make sure it adheres to the 16th edition of CMOS. We’re not changing anything else.
Rob: Okay . . .
When Rob’s edits came back, I looked them over. On Twain’s story, he’d made only one change: adding a comma.
I could appreciate his apprehension to muck with a story written by a man known for his literary genius. I’d felt the same way. I stared at Rob’s comma. Imagined his hesitation before adding it—he’d probably debated it for a bit, reading the sentence out loud with and without comma to see which flowed better, adding it, undoing the add, then putting it back in again . . .
I smiled. I appreciate how hard Rob works to polish things up, diligently double-checking his edits in CMOS, and he has a great eye for content issues. He’s meticulous. Careful. A great editor.
But I hated that comma.
We could’ve debated it. But I was running low on time, and had to move the manuscript on to layout. So I thought long and hard: what would Mark Twain want? When he’d written “The Californian,” had he intended for that one sentence to have a comma, an intentional pause there, and some editor over a hundred years ago deleted it on him? Was he rolling in his grave even now, lamenting the loss of that one little punctuation mark?
At this point, I made an executive decision: Mark Twain had a pretty good sense of humor. And I’m sure he would’ve found it highly amusing how much time both Rob and I had spent pondering this one darn comma. So if nothing else, I was satisfied that we’d delighted a dead man. I made a decision, and moved the book on to layout.
Did the comma stay? Did it go? You’ll have to pick up your copy of Tricks and Treats next week to find out!