Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

If you are a professional writer or editor, or thinking about writing for publication, you should read Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice From Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). Saller, a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press and editor of their monthly Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A, outlines the role of a copy editor and advises not only on how to be a good copy editor, but also how writers should deal with their copy editors and make the most out of what could be the most important professional relationship a writer has.

The book is not simply for those in the publishing industry and who are or who are working with people with the formal title of copy editor. This book is for anyone who reviews text or submits text for review. Sometimes a copy editor is a boss, or a colleague, or a best friend.

The title is somewhat of a misnomer. There isn’t all that much that’s truly subversive in the text—although I can’t blame the her and the U of C Press for choosing a provocative title; you’ve got to sell the book—unless you count the heretical (to some) idea that a style guide is not sacrosanct, the word of God carried down from the mountain. Saller sensibly tells you to “adhere to the style manual, except when [...] it’s not working for you.” It’s not that Saller is some kind of grammatical anarchist, she quite clearly outlines why a consistent style is important for professional writing, but she recognizes that style is arbitrary and a matter of choice, and that no style guide, no matter how comprehensive, can hope to cover every situation a writer or editor will face.

You won’t find style advice in The Subversive Copy Editor (except incidentally, via anecdote); it’s primarily a relationship manual. It discusses how writers and copy editors can get along, how copy editors should interact with other staffers at the publishing house, and most importantly, how all these relationships can serve the most important relationship, that between the writer and her reader.

In addition to outlining the role of copy editor, Saller describes how a manuscript goes from the author’s word processor to the printed page. Along the way, you will learn what an acquisitions editor does, how typesetters work, get a feel for the importance of permissions and deadlines to the bottom line of the publication, and get to know other intricacies of the publication process. It’s not a detailed how-to manual on publishing, but it provides a general overview of the publication process and the importance of the various steps in that process.

Above all, this is a sane book that advocates for the best kind of editorial bureaucracy. Good bureaucracies have processes in place that make the no-brainer decisions easy, leaving you with time to focus on the exceptions—the truly important and meaningful decisions. Saller understands and conveys exactly how style guides should be used: to make the routine editorial decisions easy, so the editor and writer can focus on the difficult ones—which won’t necessarily conform to the house style.

I guess if sanity is subversive, so is this guide.

But I can’t seem to let any review go by without picking at least one nit. Saller hits one of my pet peeves regarding style when she writes:

Well, if you don’t allow the serial comma at all, you will at times be stuck with situations like the following hypothetical dedication page that our managing editor likes to cite: “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.” (Maybe that example will help you change your company’s policy.)

It’s not the advice I object to, it’s the anecdote. This is precisely the pedantic nonsense that gives copy editors a bad name. (And runs counter to everything else in the book.) Omitting the serial comma can, in some cases, create ambiguity and confusion, but the example cited is not such a case. No reader could possibly be deluded into thinking the writer believes that his parents were Mother Teresa and the pope. The context precludes any possibility of ambiguity. Now, had the author written, “...my parents, John Baker and Mary Jones,” there would be ambiguity. Of course, it wouldn’t be funny, but we shouldn’t perpetuate pedantry in the name of humor.

Now that that’s out of my system, I repeat that this book should be read by all who write or edit in the course of their professional duties.

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself), University of Chicago Press, 2009, $13.00.

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