Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the University of Chicago Press.

subversiveI have a terrible editor confession:1You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor. until now, I had not read Carol Fisher Saller’s book The Subversive Copy Editor. I also have to take back what I said about But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?this is the best book on editing I’ve ever read.

The book, now in its second edition, has been revised and expanded with new chapters. In the introduction, Saller explains just what she means by “subversive”—rather than sneaking errors into print to sabotage the writer, she aims to subvert the stereotype of the editor locked in an eternal struggle with the writer or so bound by pointless rules that they can’t see the forest of the copy for the trees of supposed errors.

I find Saller’s views on editing absolutely refreshing. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that editors and authors are mortal enemies locked in an eternal struggle. Authors want to share their ideas, and readers, we hope, want to read them; editors help facilitate the exchange. Shouldn’t we all be on the same side?

Saller starts with a few important reminders—copy editors aren’t the boss, and the copy doesn’t belong to us—before diving into some practical advice on how to establish good author-editor relations. It all starts with an introductory phone call or email, which is the editor’s chance to establish their carefulness, transparency, and flexibility. If you show the author from the beginning that you’re on their side, the project should get off to a good start.

And to maintain good relations throughout a project, it’s important to keep showing that you’re careful, transparent, and flexible. Don’t bombard the author with too many queries about things that they don’t know or care about like arbitrary points of style. Just make a decision, explain it succinctly if you feel the need, and move on. And don’t lecture or condescend in your queries either. Saller recommends reading through all of your queries again once you get to the end of a project, because sometimes you read a query you wrote days ago and realize you unintentionally come across as a bit of a jerk.

Too many editors mechanically apply a style without stopping to ask themselves whether they’re making the manuscript better or merely making it different. Sometimes a manuscript won’t perfectly conform to Chicago or whatever style you may be using, but that can be okay as long as it’s consistent and not wrong. (If you’re editing for an academic journal or other publication with a rigid style, of course, that’s a different story.) But there’s no reason to spend hours and hours changing an entire book manuscript from one arbitrary but valid style to another equally arbitrary but valid style. Not only have you wasted time and probably irritated the author, but there’s a good chance that you’ve missed something, introduced errors, or both. Rather than “What’s the rule?” Saller suggests asking, “What is helpful?” or “What makes sense?”

And Saller doesn’t have much patience for editors who get “hung up on phantom issues and personal bugaboos,” who feel compelled to “ferret out every last which and change it to that2I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.—if you’re still relying on your high school English teacher’s lectures on grammar, you need to get with the times. Get some good (current!) reference books. Learn to look things up online.

I also appreciated the advice on how to manage difficult projects. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, Saller recommends a few simple steps: automate, delegate, reevaluate, and accept your fate. See if you can find a macro or other software tool to save you from having to grind through long, repetitive tasks. Delegate things to an intern if possible. (Sorry, interns!) Ask yourself whether you really need to do what you think needs to be done. And if all else fails, simply knuckle down and get through it.

There’s also a chapter to help writers navigate the copyediting process, along with chapters on learning to use your word processor better, managing deadlines, working as a freelancer, and more. And throughout it all Saller provides sensible, practical advice. Some of my favorite bits come from a chapter called “The Zen of Copyediting,” which aims to help editors let go of the things that don’t really matter. When faced with an apathetic author, one of Saller’s colleagues tells herself, “You can’t care about the book more than the author.” Saller herself dares to suggest that “some of our ‘standards’ are just time-consuming habits that don’t really make a difference to the reader.” And finally, one of Saller’s former mentors liked to say, “Remember—it’s only a book.”

Whether you’re a seasoned editor or a novice just breaking into the field, The Subversive Copy Editor provides sage advice on just about every aspect of the job. It should be a part of every editor’s library.

The Subversive Copy Editor is available now at Amazon and other booksellers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. You can choose to read that either as a terrible confession for an editor or as the confession of a terrible editor.
2. I saw this happen once on a proofread. Remarkably, I don’t think the author used a single relative that in the entire book. The proofreader hunted down every last restrictive which and changed it to that—and missed a lot of real errors in the process. And changing that many whiches to thats surely would have wreaked havoc with the copyfitting.

6 Responses to Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

  1. Andrew Mason says:

    Thanks for the useful review. Which good, current reference books would you recommend?

    • If you’re an editor, you’ll of course want a recent edition of whatever style guide is used in your field. For usage, my favorite Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still the best usage dictionary out there. Garner’s Modern English Usage is also good, though I think a lot of his recommendations need to be taken with a grain of salt. Even though he relies a lot on corpus data, he still peddles a lot of bogus rules. But it’s good to consult both of these to get an idea of the different opinions out there.

      My favorite dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (also available online), though I also have a copy of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. It also has some good usage notes on certain items, though it doesn’t replace a full usage dictionary.

      Grant Barrett’s Perfect English Grammar (reviewed here) is a pretty good primer or refresher. Of course, if you’re really hardcore, there’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, but that’s probably too technical and academic for most editors.

      For books on style or writing in general, I recommend Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. The newer editions have been edited by someone else, so I don’t know how they compare to the original, but I think it’s probably still safe to recommend it. Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (reviewed here) is also very good. I’d avoid The Elements of Style. It’s too reductive and misleading to be of any real use.

  2. Andrew Mason says:

    Many thanks for this overview – most helpful. I’m actually a translator, but given the quality of some of the texts I translate, I often feel like an editor at the same time!

  3. Jeevan says:

    Informative review! Just a query …

    You wrote “Delegate things to an intern if possible. (Sorry, interns!)”.

    Wouldn’t it be more natural to write “Delegate things to an intern if possible (Sorry, interns!).”?

    • I’m not sure why that would be more natural. I punctuated the parenthetical as a separate sentence because that’s how I viewed it. But you could also view it as an interjection within another sentence. Some parentheticals clearly go one way or the other, but this could probably go either way.

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