Coping with Copyediting

Part 2 of The Subversive Copy Editor switches gears from how to work with the writer for the benefit of the reader to how to manage yourself and others. Saller offers coping strategies for what she believes are the real sources of stress: difficult projects and difficult people.

In “When Things Get Tough (the Sequel): The Dangerous Manuscript,” she takes on both the mindless task and the complicated task: “A mindless task can usually be safely undone. A complicated task risks doing harm.” If automation doesn’t work, reevaluate: “Is the offending material actually incorrect, or is it simply not styled conventionally? Will it inconvenience or confuse the reader?” I love that she advocates not turning ourselves into fleshy automata when conventional automation can’t handle the job. Rather, use judgement and be as flexible as the situation allows. But, of course, if the task turns out to be necessary, give it your full attention.

Saller briefly mentions the virtues of word processors (your automating friends) and gives some best practices before moving on to managing deadlines, which, she says, can be accomplished through “three skills: prioritizing, organizing, and documentizing” (which she promises is a real word). In the next chapter, we learn how to “play nicely” with our officemates—if we have them, which leads us to “The Freelancer’s Quandaries” of feast or famine and how much to charge for services. One of the variables in that equation is just how knowledgeable you are.

“Things We Haven’t Learned Yet: Keeping Up Professionally” addresses not the innocent ignorance of youth, but the bullheaded stubbornness of experience. Just as the language evolves, so do the rules (we’ve circled back to “correctness”). While changes in the basic tenants of grammar are glacial, usage is another matter altogether. Saller suggests first of all, traditional professional development, but even more emphatically, turning to the internet: websites, blogs, Twitter, and mailing lists. Here, you can find not only fresh knowledge, but communication with other professionals editors, scholars, and linguists, many of whom are more knowledgeable than you.

“Further Reading” lists professional organizations, websites, blogs, newsletters, forums, and mailing lists that Saller recommends, in addition to referring the reader to the “extensive bibliography” in the Chicago Manual of Style.

The Subversive Copy Editor takes us on a quick and fun trip through the copyeditor’s world, with occasional dives into personal anecdotes that give depth and weight to the narrative. It’s not so much a “how to” book as a coping and improvement manual for those already working in the field. Which is a good thing.

Avoiding Stet

In chapter 3, “Working for the Reader, through the Writer,” Saller discusses the delicate art of querying and how not to sabotage yourself when engaged in it. Her mantra of “carefulness, transparency, flexibility” resonates throughout the chapter. She reminds us that the writer is “a trove of knowledge” when it comes to the subject matter and probably has a pretty good take on the reader as well. She explains that style is style, not grammar; it’s a convention to make life easier for the reader, not an inflexible battering ram, or even a universal set of rules that are generally agreed upon.

Chapter 4, “When Things Get Tough,” finds us facing “the difficult author.” Saller reviews the stereotypes—”assistant professors…take editing personally; red marks on their manuscripts are like little stab wounds”—before sharing several anecdotes illustrating how to and how not to deal with writers who are more sensitive to having their work edited.

Saller takes aim at some people’s fixation with being “correct” in “The Misguided Martyr, or Laying Down Your Life for the Serial Comma.” She gives the very good advice that if you are hung up on outdated grammar rules, the best remedy is to read new things and catch up to what’s current. She mentions Garner’s Modern American Usage, which I was thrilled to learn of, being the owner of a 1979 reprint of the 1966 edition of Follett’s Modern American Usage. There are mentions of double spaces after a period (a bugaboo), the Oxford comma (depends), and whoever versus whomever (yes, it matters). The main take-aways are (1) look it up, but not on a stone tablet and (2) you can break the rules, but use your head and make sure you understand the reasoning behind the rule before you break it.

The Good Launch

Two of my favorite people are the Underground Grammarian and the Subversive Copyeditor. They both speak truths plainly and without fear. It has been a while since I have read for pleasure with a pen in my hand.

But, while the Underground Grammarian can be derisive and discursive, the Subversive Copyeditor cuts straight through to the matter with diplomacy. In fact, chapter 2, “The Good Launch,” is a bit of a primer on tact and gaining the trust of the writer. She presents the “three virtues of the enlightened editor,” walks us through first contact, and then enumerates “six habits to cultivate—now.”

Saller also talks about making “silent changes” when tracking changes—omitting global changes from tracking and notifying the writer in a note at the first instance. It’s also very practical for when deleting spaces, removing hyphens, and making other visually confusing annotations. More on this can be found in CMOS itself at §2.85.

If you find editing in the least bit interesting, go out and get this book—now.


First, Do No Harm

One of the hardest lessons to learn as a copyeditor is to know when to leave well enough alone. When it is literally, well enough—technically incorrect according to say, Chicago, but well within the norms of communication and perfectly coherent. You might even say, it’s a matter of style. Or, it’s simply a pet peeve that has gained widespread acceptance. I’m not advocating giving in to popular opinion or outright errors, but rather taking a moment to consider if your efforts will do more harm than good. Is it a completely consistent practice that would be difficult to eliminate even with find and replace, and therefore changing it would introduce numerous opportunities for error? Well, maybe you should give it a second thought. Will you be creating chaos just to eliminate a pet peeve? Be honest.

This is the sort of minefield that reading The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller can create. Fortunately, Saller’s goal is to lead you safely through the danger zones that editors encounter daily but hardly ever discuss. As one section heading declares: “Rules Are Made to Be Broken; Copy Editors Are Not.”

She begins with “Who’s the Boss?” The answer is the reader. After all, isn’t the writer himself working for the reader in the end? The copy editor is just another member of the creative team who, ultimately, is responsible to the reader. The writer comes second: “…to see the writer-editor relationship as inherently adversarial is to doom yourself to a career of angst and stress.”

The writer’s job is far more difficult than the copy editor’s: the writer has to actually write the thing. It is your privilege to polish copy without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through a document in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.

And, that’s just the first chapter. I’m going to take it slow and try to make updates when I can, but so far, it’s a great read.