Book review: The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller

June 28, 2016

One of the books I found most helpful when I began freelance editing was Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor. Unlike style guides and other trade references that editors consult more or less daily, Saller’s book focuses not so much on how to copyedit as on ‘how to survive while doing it’.

I’m happy to report that The Subversive Copy Editor was recently published in a second edition. Two chapters longer and noticeably heftier, it still falls well under 200 pages: you’d zip through it in a day or two. It’s full of solid advice on such aspects of the job as managing deadlines, handling pressure and difficult clients, improving your computer use (e.g., filing, word processing), and email etiquette.

It also offers clear and practical guidance on the nuts and bolts of editing. For example, it explains the benefit of reviewing your queries to an author before you return their text:

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Catch of the day: ‘Sea Gastronomy’ by Michael O’Meara

December 7, 2015

A few years ago I edited a master’s thesis for Michael O’Meara, a Galway-based chef and photographer. Michael owns Oscars Seafood Bistro, which he runs with his wife Sinéad and a talented team. His thesis won an award for academic excellence, and he was pleased enough with my editing and proofreading that he sent me a testimonial and said he’d be in touch again when he wrote a book.

Michael was true to his word. After much research and compilation of material he put together a manuscript, and with the tireless help of the wonderful Connemara publishers Artisan House the results of these efforts are now complete. Sea Gastronomy: Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic is a prodigious achievement, with 440 pages of recipes, zoological notes, and more, covering 120-odd species (some of them very odd) from the bountiful seas around Ireland.

Sea Gastronomy by Michael O'Meara, Artisan House - two editions

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Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible or dogmatic about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

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BBC News style guide now globally available

July 8, 2014

I do enjoy a good style guide: browsing the alphabetical entries, reading the general advice sections, learning how organisations handle sensitive subjects, and seeing how different publishers treat the same material. What usage fiend doesn’t find this stuff fascinating?

So I was very happy to learn today that the BBC News style guide is now fully and freely available online.  It went public about a year ago but didn’t appear to be accessible outside the UK, except for a PDF which, though generally excellent, dates to March 2003.

The online BBC style guide is searchable and easy to navigate. As well as the usual A–Z it has sections on names, numbers, military, and religion. Its page on grammar, spelling and punctuation offers useful tips on capitalisation, homophones, hyphens, US/UK differences, and timeworn bugbears (“By all means, split the infinitive…”), though it also unhelpfully upholds the dubious that/which rule.

BBC News style guide

So, OK, I have a slightly complicated relationship with style guides. As an editor I greatly value how they help ensure a set of texts is styled consistently to a given standard. But the descriptivist in me recoils at how conservative, arbitrary and wrong-headed they can be. If I had the time and will, I could spend all day refuting certain style guides on Twitter. But that’s a grouch for another day. It’s browsing time.

Tip of the hat to Damien Mulley, whose tweet about the also-newly-freely-available BBC Academy of Journalism alerted me to the BBC’s style guide going public globally. It can also be downloaded as a Word document (44k words in total) at this link.

Donna Tartt on language standardisation

October 16, 2013

Slate has published an interesting conversation between author Donna Tartt and her editor Michael Pietsch. As well as discussing the mechanics of the author–editor relationship, they touch on a topic of recurring fascination to me: the standardisation of language.

Since English was largely standardised centuries ago by early printers and lexicographers such as Caxton and Johnson, the process has continued through, among others, editors who codify formal written English and so serve as unofficial gatekeepers of the prestige dialect.

Tartt is “troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage”. While acknowledging the importance of house style in journalism, she laments its effects on literary expression:

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Interview at Copyediting newsletter

November 27, 2012

I realise that my exciting career as a freelance writer and editor is of little interest to the world at large. But if you have a few minutes to kill and you take a notion, here is an informal Q&A I did with the good people at Copyediting newsletter.

Online editor Dawn McIlvain Stahl asked me about job satisfaction, the influence of science, who would play me in a Hollywood film, and other things. I’m told I make the lifestyle sound serene, and I guess I do, but only because (being a glass-quarter-full sort) I left out the stressful parts.

Copyediting have a whole series of these interviews with editors, which you’ll enjoy browsing if the subject interests you.

The Typographic Oath for editors

April 12, 2011

Tim Radford at The Guardian recently shared his 25 commandments for journalists, which he not-very-seriously subtitled a ‘manifesto for the simple scribe’. It is a sound, humorous and well-written piece of writing advice. Although the commandments were compiled with news hacks in mind, many of them apply equally well to anyone writing or editing. Commandment no. 1 is as follows:

When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.

Arthur Koestler once said that every writer has ‘a favourite type of imaginary reader, a friendly phantom but highly critical’ with whom the writer is in ‘continuous, exhausting dialogue’. This is easy to believe of Koestler, whose deft, brisk prose belied the great care of its creation, but not all writers are so conscientious. Many are, or try to be, but the results sometimes suggest too great a distance between writer and imaginary reader when the words were being chosen and arranged.

Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. As I said at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, writers should strive to write well enough not to repel or irritate readers, whose time oughtn’t to be wasted or abused. Editors work to strengthen the writer-reader link, fostering readers’ faith in writers’ intentions and their ability to execute them. We do what we do in order to make it as easy as possible for readers simply to continue reading, understanding, and enjoying.*

Much as musicians switch rhythm and tone according to the conductor and sheet notes, so must editors adjust to different writing styles and readership types. Erin Brenner, at Copyediting, addressed Radford’s article from a copyeditor’s point of view, seeing how it holds for academic writing or any text not intended for a general audience. In her helpful analysis, she stresses the value of adaptability, and notes in a comment that ‘judgement is part of our craft’.

Judgement, not judgementalism. It’s important that an editor not prioritise foisting a firm set of ‘fixes’ on every text. Carol Fisher Saller, in The Subversive Copy Editor (a practical, frank and witty guide to the art of editing), puts it well:

It is your privilege to polish a manuscript without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.
And oh, baby—the ways in which we do harm.

A remarkable example of harm is described in a subsequent post at Copyediting: a narrator’s gender was mysteriously changed, and other errant edits were made. This is a far cry from minimal interference; it transforms the very nature, identity, and politics of the text. Author Mima Simić tells of her experience here.**

Loath to miss the opportunity for a pun, I suggested in a comment that ‘Do no harm’ could be called the typographic oath. Erin Brenner graciously adopted the term for Copyediting’s commandments for copyeditors based on the discussion to date. It’s a list that will interest editors, writers and readers alike. And, of course, it remains subject to editing – Erin points out that it is, after all, a copyeditor’s list.

One of its entries advises against being a ‘search-and-replace’ editor:

Whenever we are tempted to automatically change something, such as impact to effect, we should remember language’s finer distinctions.

Making fine distinctions is something editors do all day. Not that we all make the same distinctions. Some of us, though not me, would instinctively amend ‘tempted to automatically change’ to ‘tempted automatically to change’, and we could argue about it until Christmas. The Subversive Copy Editor makes the point that ‘a manuscript will never be edited the same way twice, and it will never be considered perfect, no matter how many times it’s edited’.

Text is endlessly editable, infinitely perfectible, and part of good judgement is knowing when to stop.


* It’s also worth pointing out that a significant chunk of editing involves checking for typos, formatting consistently, and doing other housekeeping tasks that have little to do with the quality of writing.

** See further discussion at the Literary Saloon and Maitresse.