Thoughts on Copyediting from a Pro

I just finished reading Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, a longtime copyeditor at The New Yorker. Her book is a memoir/reference hybrid, combining lovely anecdotes about her life as well as grammar lessons. Some passages in the book resonated with me, especially those about the role of a copyeditor:

On the purpose of copyediting:

The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up–unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out. (p. 36)

On what writers think of copyeditors:

Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, and at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. (p. 38)

And on why copyeditors will always be important, despite technology improving:

Because English has so many words of foreign origin, and words that look the same but mean something different depending on their context, and words that are in flux, opening and closing like flowers in time-lapse photography, the human element is especially important if we are to stay on top of the computers, which, in their determination to do our  job for us, make decisions so subversive that even professional wordsmiths are taken by surprise. (p. 113)

Finally, Mary’s enthusiasm of pencils (especially soft-leaded no. 1 pencils!) is particularly endearing in the chapter “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.” In this penultimate chapter, she also remarks on her lacking handwriting (“I’d had complaints about it since third grade,” p. 171) and shares an interesting observation about those with neat handwriting: “Later, as a graduate student, teaching comprehension, I noted that the student with the neatest handwriting often wrote the dullest prose” (p. 172). The quote reminds me to be gentler on my own children with their sometimes-sloppy (often-sloppy?) handwriting.

This delightful book about the editing life is the twenty-sixth book I’ve read this year for pleasure (only four more to go to meet my goal for the year!). It does not count the hundreds (probably thousands) of pages I have read for work. Nothing makes me happier than sinking my teeth into a new subject or work. I am thankful that I’ve been able to make reading a hobby and a career.

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