Another peek behind the curtain – the power (and danger) of STET

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I don’t know what it means. I don’t know where it comes from. It is the mightiest weapon a writer has against the vagaries of out-of-control editors trying to wreak devious changes in their magnum opus. It is – the STET. 

Yeah, I exaggerate. But if you’re just figuring that out, then you must be new here. Hi, I’m John. I’m the funny one. Everybody else can fight over who’s the smart one(s) and who’s the pretty one(s). I got funny locked up. Mostly because I’m neither pretty nor terribly bright, so I work with what I’ve got. 

But I digress. No really, I do. It’s kind of a thing. 

Anyway, since I’m heavy in copyedits for Paint it Black, Book IV of the Black Knight Chronicles (release date of October 15, preorders open now), I thought I’d talk a bit about that process, or at least how it works with my editors. I’m sure everyone has their own process for copyedits, depending on the longevity of the writer, the editor and their relationship, but what I’ll describe is the process I go through with Bell Bridge. 

Remember that this is what happens in the copy edit phase ONLY. By this point we’ve already gone through an edit of the synopsis, a developmental edit and rewrite of the first draft, maybe a story edit and second rewrite, and there might even have been a third round of rewrites. On Paint it Black, we  did a heavy rewrite, so we went straight from there into copy edits, because the rewrite and first story edit were so exhaustive. But here’s how it goes – I get an email with a PDF file attached, and a deadline (which happens to be this afternoon, but no one’s panicking yet). I begin to look over things, muttering all the while about commas, quotes and capitalizations (I have only the loosest grasp on commas – I feel they’re like garlic and should be sprinkled liberally through everything. I am the reason copyeditors will never lose job security). Then I look for things that are inconsistent, or things that I think are important that may be grammatically incorrect, but are important for style. 

For example, there has been a lot of debate internally about the use of Fairy v. Faerie in this book. And FaerieLand v. Fairyland. I had a whole justification for why one thing was formal and the other one casual, and how it all made perfect sense when you looked at it from the standpoint of an outsider to the Fae realms, and the differences inherent in the speakers, and all that jazz. And it boiled down to – keep it consistent or it looks like a mistake. No matter how clever I was going to be, if we switched from Fairy to Faerie twenty-seven times within the book, it was gonna look like a mistake. Which made sense when she explained it like that. So it’s all Faerie. 

One of mine that I held firm on was X-men versus X-Men. In one book (Genesis) I had a character refer to their group as a new breed of X-Men. The copy editor wanted to italicize, because it’s the name of a comic or movie. I didn’t, since I wasn’t referencing the comic or movie as a piece of art, but I was talking about a group of people, so it shouldn’t be italicized. It took a little convincing, but with judicious use of my Sword of STET, I won. 

So I go through the document with a fine-toothed comb and keep an eye on what’s going on with the document, and most of what I do in this part is just approve the changes the copy editor made. To be brutally honest, if somebody tells me that a comma goes somewhere else, or that something shouldn’t be capitalized after a quote, I don’t care. I want it to be right, and will trust just about anyone who tells me they’re right. But sometimes things need to be the way I wrote them, and that’s where the STET comes in. 

STET is kinda the nuclear option for a writer in the copy edit stage. It’s saying “this is really important to me, and I really don’t want to change it.” I try to use STET very sparingly, mostly because I have great editors and a loose association with the rules of grammar, but sometimes an editor’s proposed changes can change the meaning of a sentence or passage, and sometimes it just needs to be the way I left it. I think in the omnibus edition of The Black Knight Chronicles I probably had less than ten STET marks across three books. But copy editors do more than just check grammars and make me swear about comma usage and quotation capitalization – they’re also awesome fact-checkers. For instance, I had no idea that Walmart was no longer hyphenated, even though I live less than a mile from one. I also paid very little attention to the change of the Sci-Fi channel’s name to SyFy, but my copy editor did. And whenever I screw up on the height of a character, which is often, I rely heavily on my copy editor to bail me out. 

Writing, like theatre, is a team sport. Even though we start the race alone, it takes a bunch of people to get us across the finish line, and the copy editor is one of the really important ones. So look over the changes they make, and most of the time you should probably accept the changes, but don’t be afraid to go nuclear if you have to. Feel free to add your $.02 in the comments with your editorial experiences. 

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6 comments to Another peek behind the curtain – the power (and danger) of STET

  • I had to go lookin’ around. Per Wiki, stet is a latin word, translated as “Let it stand.” Used by editors and proofreaders to instruct a typesetter to ignore a change they’d previously marked.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stet

  • I am in love with STET. It is my boyfriend. (Don’t tell the Hubs.)

    And my copyeditor? Doesn’t keep track of any character stuff, so I am, like, envious, Dude.
    (she said as she dives in to page proofs for next book, BLACK ARTS, out Jan 7, 2014. {shameless plug})

  • Florence King’s collection of essays was titled STET, Dammit! In her dedication page she thanked her editor for fighting the first and second battles of “because.”

  • Like you, I use STET sparingly, just as I tend to limit the number of things I fight over with my editor in the first round of revisions. Often, STET is the knee jerk reaaction, and so I let my STETs sit for a few days before actually penciling them in. In most instances, once my initial response has faded, I’m able to see what the editor had in mind. And usually he or she is right.

  • “Stet” is third-person singular present subjunctive of Latin stare, “to stand”.

  • I just copy-edited my first book two weeks ago. Why? Because when I do something, I like to learn about all aspects of the industry. Just the way I am. If I was playing baseball, I would learn what the owner and the umpire does as well as my position.

    Now I have done editing, I understand the editor can and SHOULD BE just as stubborn as the writer. Airforce Two is not going to be used by the president’s wife – she isn’t in the military chain of command, she get no special military designations. Just isn’t happening. Incorrect grammar from a character – hmm, really author’s choice – so long as s/he knows the grammar is incorrect – not my job copy editing to decide whether a character uses incorrect or correct grammar (that is way back in one of the content editing phases).

    It was a really interesting experience sitting on the other side. Also helps me as a reader understand why some content error gets through. The author and the content editor didn’t know about the Airforce One/Two designation. I just happen to. If it had been someone else, it would have slipped through. Interesting to see how the whole process works together.

    Good luck with your parsing the editing suggestions John; waiting patiently for the book – Same wishes and waiting for Faith.