Carol Fisher Saller is the person you would want as your editor.
When her book on the craft, The Subversive Copy Editor, came out in 2009, its compact advice and irenic tone exemplified how an editor should go about the business. While she is unfailingly thoughtful and tactful in dealing with the writer, she understands the necessary distance between writer and editor that permits the editor to honor the primary loyalty: to the reader.
And she is no pushover: "Just because there is a cleaning crew doesn't mean you get to throw food on the floor." "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."
Now we have a second edition of The Subversive Copy Editor (University of Chicago Press, 186 pages, $15) with, she says, "important things that I'd forgotten to say." The second edition includes among its updates two new chapters, one on outdated grammar and style rules, one on staying current in language and technology issues. Let's have a look at those chapters.
In the first she identifies the copy editor's besetting sin: "a mania for correctness and consistency that, if applied universally, would give every piece of writing the same drab, expressionless, and mechanical style of prose." Some copy editors are unaware "that some of their long-held rules are controversial or have even been discarded." One of the truly subversive elements in this chapter is that "understanding the thinking behind a style choice gives you the power both to discard it when better thinking should prevail and to argue for it more convincingly when the reasoning applies."
"Better thinking." Using your head. Thinking things through. Not merely knowing the conventions of usage and the strictures of the style guide, but keeping in mind "what's important and what's trivial in producing a clear and readable document."
What will foster that better thinking is described in the chapter on "Keeping Up Professionally." If "we still believe in the rules of English we learned in our youth," we are likely to be unaware of those controversial or discarded ones. "There are no universal and immutable, God-given style and grammar rules. Language evolution is the ultimate in crowdsourcing." Dictionaries and style guides must be updated, and "different kinds of writing require different guidelines." A professional has to keep up. Keeping up also means keeping up with the constantly changing technology. "If editing is your job, it's reasonable for your primary tools to be up to standard for your editing assignments."
Happily, this edition includes suggestions of how websites, blogs, and social media can assist the copy editor in keeping current with the language and the technology. There is also a "Further Reading" appendix abounding in suggestions.*
If you admired—even loved—the first Subversive Copy Editor, you will perforce admire and love the second edition. Besides, you know, it's important to keep up.
*Among them: "John McIntyre's short but frequent antistickler posts on grammar and style."