Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revision Relief

The revisions from the copyeditor came back for "For the Birds" a biography of Roger Tory Peterson. For this book they came via email and when I saw it pop up on my screen, my stomach tightened. I always get a queasy feeling, afraid there will be questions I can't answer and glaring mistakes pointed out. Why didn't I write fiction, I wonder. They don't have this kind of pressure for accuracy.

I take a deep breath and call up the text and see how many notes there are - 41. That amounts to more than one on each page. Ugh! My stomach flips. Then I start to read them. The copyeditor's first query is whether to use italics or underline a particular heading. Okay, I can handle that. I keep reading. More style and format questions -- do we use italics or quotation marks or both for quotes? Another easy one.

Then I get the queries to double-check names and dates. Is it called the Rivers School or The Country Day School for Boys of Boston in 1931? Is the Hunts Point dump a proper dump with a capital D? Should I include the full name of DDT in this picture book or not? I relax a little. Nothing I can't handle.

But one point brought up by an expert reader does present a problem. He questions some of the details of an incident that happened in Roger's childhood. I have to weigh my sources. There are discrepancies. The writer Edwin Way Teale, a friend of Roger's, describes one moth incident, and Roger's sister Margaret describes it another way. Are they writing about the same event? Roger did not write about it, so I don't have his word, but I feel like Margaret, who was there, would remember it well. Moths flew all around the house. So back to the drawing board I go. Is there another source out there? And if not, how can I write this scene accurately without killing it with phrases like 'some sources described...."

The revision process is a necessary evil. I hate being questioned about my research, but I welcome the opportunity to fix mistakes. I want to be proud of this book, and the only way to do that is to make sure I get it right -- facts, format and feeling.

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