5 Things I Learned from “The Subversive Copy Editor

Every month, when Chicago e-mails me to let me know that its Q&A page has been updated, I gobble up the new info faster than the Redoubtable Mr. L— can eat a pan of brownies. (It won’t be long before we’re on a first-name basis with the people at the pet emergency room.)

So, when I found out that Carol Fisher Saller, the woman behind the Q&A, had written a book, I knew I had to get it—immediately. It didn’t disappoint.

Here are five things her book, The Subversive Copy Editor, taught me:

  1. I shouldn’t be so quick to change “dispositioning” to “disposing” or “precipitation event” to “rain” when I’m editing technical documents. Saller writes, “[M]ost writers are likely to be better acquainted than you are with the special readership of their work, and you would do well to think before you mess with their choices.” However, if I come across a newsletter article that says the company picnic was ruined by a precipitation event, I’m going to say instead that it was rained out, and I’m going to feel really, really smug about it.
  2. Some changes are best made silently. If, for example, your author has used double spaces between sentences, you might consider turning off Word’s “track changes” feature, doing a global search and replace to change all double spaces to single spaces, and subtly pointing out what you’ve done (by, say, inserting a comment like this in the margin: “Changed double spaces to single throughout”). It’s been my experience that tracked changes can freak authors out. They see the markup, and they go to a shame-filled elementary-school place, a place with the smell of chalk dust and the creak of floorboards and the feel of sweat rolling down your back as you stand at the blackboard, trying to remember the past tense of “drag,” while your teacher stands behind you, tapping her palm with a ruler. (Just remember to turn track changes back on, of course. Trust me. That’s not an amusing mistake to make.)
  3. Every editor makes mistakes, even Saller: “The only time I was able to make a mess of a manuscript without annoying the author was the time a severely dyslexic writer reviewed the editing and page proofs himself. Did I get away with murder? Not a chance. To my humiliation a reviewer wrote, “ ‘Finally, I must mention that this volume is poorly edited for a product from a major university press. Typographical errors and redundancies abound.’ ”
  4. If you place your cursor on a lowercase word and hit SHIFT + F3, Word will put it into initial caps. Hit SHIFT + F3 again, and Word will put it in all caps. Hit SHIFT + F3 one more time, and the word will go back to lowercase. By highlighting a block of text before hitting SHIFT + F3, you can adjust the capitalization throughout. (Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work in Word 2007, just older versions, which means I can do it at work but not at home. Lame!)
  5. “Sleight of hand is the editor’s best tool.”

Good Punctuation Transcends Politics

Since Mr. K– is busy grading finals tonight and doesn’t have time to watch Dexter on Chinese YouTube with me, I’ve been keeping myself entertained by toodling around Slate. I came across this (admittedly old) article in which Bruce Reed mentions Supreme Court Judge John Roberts’s passion for punctuation.

As proof, Yale professor Akhil Amar points to one line from a recent Roberts opinion: “The state didnothing.” Amar tells Greenhouse, “That little dash is brilliant.”

I have to agree with Mr. Amar. Although I might have gone for ellipses instead, that’s still a damn good em dash.