How to be an editor

Carol Fisher Saller is a nicer person than I am — not that that is any great feat. She maintains the question-and-answer feature at The Chicago Manual of Style’s online site, giving brisk, concise, helpful and sometimes amused answers to a barrage of questions from writers and editors. That same level-headed advice appears on every page of The Subversive Copy Editor, published today by the University of Chicago Press. *

If you are a copy editor, an aspirant to copy editing, or a writer dealing with copy editors, a $13 investment in the paperback edition will be money well spent on your career.

While I am often impatient, irritable and outright cranky (just ask my wife, children and colleagues, or anyone who has heard me snarl my former colleague Ursula Liu’s question, “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”), Ms. Saller is irenic. She sets out the precautions you must take to avoid getting into trouble with authors over the nature and extent of your editing. She has advice on the degrees of tact that must be brought to bear with difficult authors. She advises you how to avoid being stepped on as well. I wish I had had this book 30 years ago; it could have saved me from any number of rash actions and missteps.

On a more philosophical level, she begins to describe the copy editor’s divided loyalties. The copy editor’s first loyalty is to the reader, the person for whom this product is being prepared. The second loyalty is to the writer, whose work must be allowed its distinctive voice and integrity, and who must also be protected from his own lapses and misjudgments. She points out that “being the writer’s advocate is not the same as being his buddy. As long as you are handling his manuscript, your first loyalty is going to be to the reader, and there will be times when a little professional distance will make this easier.”

There is this advice to writers in dealing with their texts: “Just because there is a cleaning crew doesn’t mean you get to throw food on the floor.” And this to the copy editor: “True, the writer’s name is on the byline, but it’s not the author’s right to offend or confuse the reader, defy the rules of standard English, fail to identify sources, or lower the standards of your institution.”

She does not write in as much detail about the copy editor’s loyalty to the institution that employs him — newspaper, magazine, journal or book publisher — of whose integrity the copy editor is a guardian, but that sense is implicit throughout.

Finally, she warns us about ourselves, about the difficulties we copy editors manufacture for ourselves through unexamined attitudes or unproductive habits. Our tendency to get bogged down in trivial details gets this sharp reproof: “[W]hile you’re busy pouncing on every little dust bunny, you may be overlooking the monster under the bed. …”

You want to be an effective copy editor? She tells you How: Get up to date on grammar and usage, develop organized work habits, know your stylebook, master the technology, take responsibility for your work. You’re needed.


* There is also what appears to be a new Web site named for the book.



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