I was cleaning my drafts folder and found these fragments from September 2011, just as I was thinking about writing a post about George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage.” Funny how I keep trying to deal with variations on the same themes.
It’s Saturday 7 AM and light rain is falling outside. While most people are sleeping in, I am sitting cross-legged on a straight gray chair, a blue pen in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other, a stack of papers and my laptop on the table before me.
From across the room, the barista calls out to me, “Studying for an exam?”
“Nope,” I answer. “Working.”
I am the cafe’s first customer and there is no one else around.
I copyedit, which is to say I make a living out of my being a perfectionist, a nerd, a grammar nudnik. Before I was a copy editor, I was an English major, and spent my days communing with and commenting on great writers, most of them dead. Now I read words by living people, making sure that only good sentences reach print. I spend forty hours a week — sometimes more — reading and editing literary and scholarly texts to improve their formatting and style. I check if they are clear, concise, consistent, and accurate, and if they are not, I trip out on them with my trusty blue pen. With dictionaries, style books, and Google at the ready, I wage daily battles against psychobabble, word salad, misinformation, and copyright infringement, battles that cannot be won with mere familiarity with the rules of grammar and the intricacies of syntax. A copy editor, more than knowing when to use “its” or “it’s,” “that” or “which,” knows what questions to ask: Does the essay provide crucial and relevant information? Is it properly documented? Are the facts accurate? Is the reasoning sound, the conclusion, justified? Are the ideas organized? Does the prose flow smoothly? If not, I do research and fill in missing information, check facts, write queries to the author, and restructure sentences and paragraphs — all these while maintaining a sense of the author’s intent, voice, and style, and taking care not to violate them. Sometimes I also write synopses of the books that pass my hands. Thus, a copy editor is more than a grammarian or spell-checker; she is a critical reader, a sleuth, a writer.
48 ounces of coffee consumed and half a day later, I come by this sentence: “The woman lacks the phallus by not having it … the relationship between the mother and the son is ruptured by the speaking God by rending their relationship.” I down another 8 ounces of coffee and reach for my pen, mentally whacking my head against the wooden table.
I wish writers would pay more attention to “style,” which Sven Birkerts calls “a redeeming expressiveness” and defines as “choices of perspective, cadence, diction, and syntactical orchestration that create in their sum an authorial personality.” He says, “the deeper philosophical question about writing is really a question about what is right. Not only what matters in terms of the subject matter — the thing one is disposed to say — but what matters in the specific language, in the words, pauses, cadences, and inflections in which that saying happens. Style.”
I’ve been much too spoiled from childhood on a diet of good literature that it turns my stomach to be fed bland prose.
What I thought upon reading a manuscript, but did not say:
If you must write about the more banal aspects of human relationships and existence, don’t just tell me what transpired and how very sordid it all is. That is fodder for gossip and I can get it elsewhere for cheap (indeed, have it forced upon me) with the added value of lilting voices, now hushed, now charged with glee, or the mystery and intrigue of a blind item in a popular tabloid or showbiz magazine. I am not interested in a plot-pool too shallow to dive into. Hint at the whys of the perversity and perceived stupidity—probe the psyche, the society, the nature of human frailty, and how all these play into the psychosexual and power dynamics of a relationship. For reference, I suggest Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.
Editorial pet peeve #82764: authors that take a complacent, lazy, even arrogant attitude toward revisions. If you don’t think there’s craft to syntax, or just don’t feel like whipping that sloppy paragraph into shape, then what makes you a Writer? Anyone with a modicum of literacy can write; not everyone can do it well.
As Ursula K. Le Guin—whose sense for prose and its patterning is among the sharpest I’ve had the pleasure to read—puts it, “A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight.
There is no glory in being a copy editor. The work is strictly anonymous; all intervention should be invisible.
It’s often thankless, too. Not all writers appreciate their shortcomings pointed out, however kindly or tactfully it is done.
Why do I edit? Because as The Robert Gottlieb said, I wish “to make something better of what it is.”
Always frazzled come production time, I take comfort in the little things. “Em-dash!” I cry to the lay-out artist, “All these en-dashes should be em-dashes, see? And these compound adjectives should be hyphenated. Not so for these adverbs—the ones ending in -ly.” He looks at me as if I were nuts. I think, Wait ’til you see how passionate I could get about the Oxford comma.