Advice

The Better Angels of Our Writing

Good copy editors can save us from ourselves

Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Creative Commons

July 20, 2015

I am always shocked when academics complain about being copy-edited, as if the marks that come back on their manuscripts were pesky flies that should be shooed away.

My experience of receiving editing, both substantively and line by line, is that it’s like love. Good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there. They point out what I do well, but they also notice my tics and bad habits and try to break me of them.

When the copy editor for my latest book placed a little check mark over the name of a computer game, Snood, and then wrote in the margin ("snood.en.softonic.com"), I knew that her fact-checking was protecting me, and I felt grateful. When I dashed off a sentence in the manuscript about something starting to "stink and rot," she pointed out that things rot first and then they stink. She kept track of how often I used particular words and asked, kindly, if I was repeating them for a reason.

My editor and I had already gone through countless drafts of my novel by the time the copy editor read the manuscript. She fixed my infelicities of language and outright mistakes, coded the text for the compositor, and paid attention to the timeline, the plot, and the quirks of both my characters and my prose. She safeguarded me and saved me from myself.

Who could be anything other than slobberingly appreciative?

Back when I worked in publishing, I knew a few copy editors who seemed personally offended by authors who got things wrong. Stylistic martinets, they fussed and fumed when a manuscript was inconsistent. These were people whose desks were so orderly they made me feel like I should go brush my hair and tidy up. Sometimes they seemed stubbornly obstructionist, sending back manuscripts because the page numbers weren’t in the right place. It could feel like bullying, especially to a sloppy young editorial assistant who sometimes put page numbers in the wrong place. But those folks were a small minority. Most copy editors I’ve known are widely educated, well read, and passionate in both their efforts at helpfulness and the care with which they approach language.

When I started reading Carol Saller's blog posts in the Lingua Franca section of The Chronicle, I thought: Who wouldn’t feel fortunate to have this woman go over their prose? Saller, a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A. In 2009 she published The Subversive Copy Editor, an advice book for those starting out in the profession. As delightful as it is useful, it’s worth a read by anyone who wants to write or teach, too. She doesn’t bash authors and doesn’t have a schoolmarmish need to correct.

In her book, Saller says the authors most likely to fuss and stet are often newly minted academics: "Assistant professors writing a first book for tenure are notorious for their inflexibility, and understandably so; their futures are at stake. They take editing personally; red marks on their manuscripts are like little stab wounds."

She offers a different way to think about copy editing. "You know what it’s like to come back to a hotel room in the afternoon and find that housekeeping has been there and everything is all fresh and put to rights?" she writes. "That’s how a copy editor would like you to feel when you see the editing."

Saller understands why copy editors can get a bad rap. They are detail-oriented folks who, yes, can take great pleasure in correcting. Her book warns newbie editors against rigidity, cautions them to heed an author’s style and adapt to it, and says that when it comes to taking sides, it’s not editor against author. Our duty is always to the reader. We all — author, editor, reader — want the same thing. We want the reader to be absorbed and unconfused.

A more recent book makes the same point. In Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris, a longtime "query proofreader" at the The New Yorker, writes, "The image of a copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers."

And then, in a move that makes this book an irresistible read, she adds, "I suppose I have been all of these."

We all know how, um, careful, The New Yorker is. Legions of authors have written about its fact checking. And anyone who’s read an issue knows that it has a peculiar style. In what other general-interest publication can we find that weird punctuation mark on words like "cooperate" and "reelect?" (You know, the one that looks like a colon was the victim of a hit-and-run? I know from Between You & Me that it’s called a diaeresis.) And in what other publication can we find such a profusion of commas?

It’s fun to get an inside look at how and why that wonderful magazine does things the way it does, but the truly great thing about Norris’s book is, well, Norris. She knows her job and does it so well that, when reading through page proofs that she had marked, Philip Roth asked, "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?" She is the best of what an editor should be: generous, careful, and, most of all, curious. She got interested in James Salter’s use of commas and sought out the author to ask about them — not because she thought he was wrong (though he was), but because she understood that such a careful writer would have a reason for making the choices he did.

Between You & Me offers lucid, cogent, and often funny descriptions of common problems in language, including the one from which she takes her title: "Just between you and me, I suffer, and the whole body of the English language shudders, when, say, a shoe salesman trying to gain my trust leans forward and says, ‘Between you and I …’ Or when a character in a movie complains to a girl that ‘it’s just not right, lumping you and I together,’ or when the winner of the Academy Award for best actress thanks a friend ‘for getting Sally and I together.’ "

First she praises the impulse of those speakers to put someone else first. Then she writes, "Let us gently point out that if they were not so fucking polite, if they occasionally put themselves first, they would know they had it wrong." And if you quail at the usage in that sentence, Norris has a whole chapter dealing with your concerns. In it she asks, "Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah." And then she gives a brief history of profanity in The New Yorker.

One of the many pleasures of the book is that Norris dishes, in the mildest ways, about the staff and writers of that august publication. I loved learning that the prose of John Updike, Pauline Kael, Mark Singer, and Ian Frazier arrived so polished that Norris couldn’t believe she was getting paid to read their manuscripts. I loved knowing that she’s "lazy" and finds it easer to use the serial comma consistently rather than stop every time to decide if a comma is needed.

I knew that "to be" is often called a linking verb, but I didn’t realize, until I read Norris’s book, that it is also called "conjugative." I love the little wink and leer she gives when she trots out that word.

Mary Norris is a person who can correct us, point out mistakes we all make, and manage not to make us feel bad, because, as she says, she makes the same mistakes.

You want to be friends with this woman, or at least I do, and with Carol Saller, and with any copy editor who cares enough to save me from myself. I know that they probably have a deeper understanding of what I’m trying to say, and that they can help me get there. And when they do it with warmth, generosity, and wit, what more could you ask for?

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.