A celebrity from the copy desk

With the publication of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $24.95), Mary Norris of The New Yorker achieves an exalted and exotic status: the celebrity copy editor.

She knows that in the popular perception, a copy editor is "a bit of a witch." "Not long ago," she writes, "a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas."


Ms. Norris is instead a thoroughly genial person with a disarming chuckle. She delighted a large audience at last week's national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in Pittsburgh with reflections on her career and craft.*

But hers is a craft, and not one for sissies, particularly not a copy editor enmeshed in The New Yorker's labyrinthine and exhaustive editing procedures. Ms. Norris has achieved the status of a Page OK'er, "a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press."

The process of editing and copy editing, as her colleague Lu Burke once explained it, is this: "First we get the rocks out. … Then we get the pebbles out. Then we get the sand out, and the writer's voice rises. No harm done."

The chapters of Between You and Me are organized around the copy editor's preoccupations: the comma, "Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out"; the hyphen, "The awful truth about hyphens and copy editors is that if there is one you want to take it out and if there's not one you're tempted to put one in"; the diaeresis, which Hobie Weekes, the magazine's style editor contemplated eliminating, but he died and the issue has been left unaddressed since 1978; the pencil, with Ms. Norris's paean to the Blackwing, "definitely softer than a No. 2, and very expressive."

Behind her subjects are the shadows of two of her predecessors, Eleanor Gould and Lu Burke

Miss Gould, the formidable grammarian who, New Yorker lore holds, once identified four errors in a three-word sentence, read everything but fiction in galley, "and by the time she was done with a proof the pencil lines on it looked like dreadlocks."

Lu Burke, a proofreader, so thoroughly ragged a new copy editor from another publication that she ultimately went back where she came from, saying, "It's as if I tried to become a nun and failed." Lu Burke, who left an estate of a million dollars to a library in the Connecticut town where she lived that she had never patronized. Lu Burke, whom Ms. Norris describes as "like that cartoon version of a Tasmanian devil—a ball of fury that would go off at whoever or whatever was in her path." She says, "If you kept standing up to Lu, eventually you won her respect. I also learned from her example not to be like her."

We can be grateful for what Mary Norris has learned from example and practice at The New Yorker, because she has generously shared it with us.

*Disclosure: I had the pleasure of lunching with her and a handful of colleagues at the Pittsburgh conference. Charmed as I was by her conversation at table and her subsequent presentation, I cannot endorse her aquiescence with The New Yorker's preference for Webster's Second over Webster's Third, and I fear I must deplore her writing that "the colloquial use of 'their' when you mean 'his or her' is just wrong."