Let’s Talk About Stets
AKA how writers and editors deal with disagreement.
In recent days I’ve spoken to several new authors who have told me the same thing re their first edits: “I didn’t know what stet meant.” Argh.
Stet is one of the most important words for an author dealing with editors. It’s one of those bits of trade jargon so essential that it often doesn’t occur to professionals that it needs explaining. So the editor will say, “Stet where you feel appropriate”, and the newbie author, lacking the confidence to admit ignorance, nods in a “yes I will definitely do that” way, and things go wrong.
Stet simply means “let it stand” (it’s Latin) and in publishing terms it means “do not make this change; keep my original text”. So you can put stet next to a change you don’t want. Here the editor has cut a repetition, but it’s character voice that I want preserved, so I have reinserted my original text.
It has become a verb of course. I stet, I have stetted. You can stet a specific change; you can also do blanket stets (“Please stet all Americanised spellings to British”) and you can also ask in advance for things to be left alone when sending a MS to the editor:
“The character Silas uses nonstandard grammar in both speech and deep 3rd person point of view. This is character voice; please stet throughout unless there is a problem with understanding, in which case please flag.”
Stet is an important tool in the editing process. If an editor makes a change or suggestion, the author may agree; or agree but change the change; or disagree but still change; or stet. Stet makes it uncompromisingly clear that you want your original kept as was, and that is extremely useful to a busy editor.
Many new authors don’t feel they can argue with edits. You really can: that’s why editing has a special word that’s designed for you to do exactly that. Whether you should is something we will come on to now.
Should You Stet?
It’s very easy to think, well, the editor is the expert so she must be right. The thing is, editors and proofers vary. Some are excellent, some are not. Some are hungover or tired or have been working for twelve hours straight. Some are experienced professionals and some are people who just like reading and work unpaid for a free copy of the book from the publisher. (Pause to consider why you are giving this publisher part of your income.) Some editors are high-intervention and prescriptive about grammar, some work for publishers with rigid style sheets and get in trouble if they diverge. Some misread, fail to understand, or don’t get it. I’m an editor, I’m pretty good if I say so myself, and I have failed in every possible way in my time. Nobody’s perfect.
What all this means is, you can’t just accept every change as though the editor is supporting your intended meaning. Hopefully the editor will be a knowledgeable professional whose every change improves the book; sometimes she won’t. The trick is knowing the difference.
I have worked with many authors who aren’t equipped with good grammar and punctuation. (Before anyone rants about how that’s a vital authorial skill, please remember the many marvellous story creators who are dyslexic or otherwise not neurotypical, writing in a second language, or were not beneficiaries of an education that gave them those tools.) I have also worked with many who just think that grammar and punctuation is boring stuff that’s the editor’s job to fix. (Feel free to rant about them.)
What I’m getting at is, I don’t know how good at writing, grammar and punctuation you are, or how good your editor is. I won’t tell you “stet everything!” or “stet nothing!” But here is a case study, dealing with something that’s come up for me a few times in recent edits, as a ‘how to handle it’ example which doubles as a punctuation class. There may be a test.
Dots and Dashes
This is an ellipsis: … Three dots. It signifies missing text, and in dialogue is used to show tailing off or hesitation.
This is an em dash: — It’s called an em dash because it originally was the same length as the letter M, twice as long as the en dash –, which is in turn longer than a hyphen. (These are not interchangeable little lines. Read up.) An em dash can be used to set off text which doesn’t need to be in parentheses—like this—and can also be used to show breaking off.
I have recently done a whole batch of copy edits in which the editor has replaced em dashes in dialogue with ellipses. This was so prevalent, across two MSS, that I suspect a style-sheet blanket rule of “incomplete speech takes an ellipsis” is being applied.
Punctuation matters. It is not something to which you can apply a universal style sheet because it changes the meaning of the text. And it is the author’s responsibility to keep hold of your meaning in edits.
Example! Here we are in a nightclub, where our heroine has just bumped into a lady with whom, she realises, she had a one-night stand some time ago.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
The editor, obedient to a style sheet or some inner compulsion, changes to an ellipsis.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…”
But that changes the meaning. Allow me to demonstrate by filling in the gaps.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
“Natalie,” the other woman said quickly, eagerly, and Jenny felt her lips curve in response.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re—”
“Natalie,” the other woman said over her, which was odd, because Jenny remembered very clearly that she had called herself Lizzie.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Shit, shit, shit. Was it Natasha? Nora? Anna?
“Natalie.” She didn’t look impressed.
“Of course,” Jenny said. “You’re…” Her voice died in her throat. She’d dreamed of seeing this woman again so often, thought of everything she’d say, and now she was here, right in front of her, and Jenny couldn’t speak a word.
In the first example, Natalie is talking over Jenny; in the second she interrupts. Both need an em dash because Jenny’s speech is broken. And you can see they need an em dash because when we use an ellipsis, in the second pair, that gives a different effect: Jenny trailing off to try and think of the blasted woman’s name, or because she’s afflicted by Romance Heroine Speech Impediment.
The big question is, what does the author mean? (Not ‘what does the style sheet say’. Style sheets are just tools, and if an editor insists on the style sheet to the detriment of the author’s meaning or the quality of the text, that’s a massive problem.) What did you mean? Did you in fact want a break, or, actually, is the ellipsis more appropriate here and the editor was right?
Was the use of poor grammar a conscious choice to convey character, or does your grammar just suck? Is this multiply queried thing throughout the MS a quirk of your authorial voice, and if so, is it a grossly overused quirk that you ought to get under control because it’s going to annoy the hell out of people (KJ)? Is this deliberate for effect, or inadvertently clumsy, ambiguous, or just plain wrong, as we all are sometimes?
There is no shame in having got something wrong, or in realising there’s a better way; that’s what editors are for. And there is no piece of writing that can’t be improved. But if you feel that the editor’s amendment is not an improvement or just doesn’t look like what you meant, you can do the following:
Discuss, particularly if you don’t feel confident in your own punctuation/grammar. (“I intended to convey hesitation here, I’m not sure this works.”) Most editors will be thrilled to work with an author who listens and wants to learn; it saves a lot of time on the next MS.
Rewrite. There’s no law says you have to accept an editor’s change, but if something’s been flagged, it’s for a reason (good or otherwise) and it’s worth considering what that is. Perhaps you don’t feel there’s a problem but it’s worth tweaking in case; perhaps there’s a different way of phrasing it that dodges the problem altogether. You never have to accept the editor’s amendment as it stands; editors don’t get to stet their suggestions.
Or, if you meant exactly what you wrote in the first place, you don’t want it changed, you don’t think the editor has a good reason, then stet. The word is there for you to use; you’re the author and ultimately the editors are there to support your writing. That’s not a free pass to be overbearing, and if you don’t listen to good advice you’re a fool. The Dunning–Kruger effect applies to authors too.
But in the end, the author has to know what she means, and author and editor should be on the same side in bringing out that meaning in the best possible words. It’s your writing. Work on it, improve it, but own it. That’s your right, and it’s also your job.
KJ is an editor, a writer, and probably a massive pain to edit. Sorry about that.
Great piece on both dealing with edits, and on the distinction between ellipses and em-dashes in dialogue. Do you advise when sending work to an editor that you should be specific (more specific than in your Silas example) about some of your stylistic choices, and just ask to check for overuse?
I was once also taught a great rule on the escalation in use of brackets, commas and em-dashes as parentheses, and how to use them for the effect you want:
* Any text between brackets can be safely ignored without violence to the message of the sentence
* Any text between commas should be read
* Any text between em-dashes is being specially brought to the reader’s attention
I should also note that I have to explain to every new staff member of mine that ‘stet’ means ‘Apologies, your grumpy and/or insufficiently caffeinated boss wrote something snarky on your report and then discovered you addressed the point two lines later. Carry on and don’t try to read what’s under the scribbling out.’
I think it’s a good idea to flag things in advance. eg I recently used a real pub called the Farmers Arms, so I put a note to the effect that no apostrophe should be inserted anywhere, it saves everyone’s time. But equally, one can still make mistakes, so I would never say “don’t touch any of X character’s dialogue” because I could easily have reversed words, or otherwise messed up.
A really useful piece. I have issues occasionally with voice interpretation because I am British and usually edited by Americans. It’s taken me a while to find the confidence but with help from good editors I have the confidence to push back when a CE or LE changes something because they want the default American style they are used to rather than understanding my voice. If it is a character usage then I will take advice and make changes, but if it is my narrative then I sometimes have to explain why I don’t agree with a change. I will also rewrite an entire paragraph before I will allow the word gotten to slip into any of my stories 🙂
And here I used two things, both stet (which I didn’t know) and the different use of ellipses and em dash in dialogue (which I thought I knew). Wow, very informative! Thank you.