The Subversive Copy Editor, Second Edition: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

The Subversive Copy Editor, Second Edition: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

by Carol Fisher Saller

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Longtime manuscript editor and Chicago Manual of Style guru Carol Fisher Saller has negotiated many a standoff between a writer and editor refusing to compromise on the “rights” and “wrongs” of prose styling. Saller realized that when these sides squared off, it was often the reader who lost. In her search for practical strategies for keeping the peace, The Subversive Copy Editor was born. Saller’s ideas struck a chord, and the little book with big advice quickly became a must-have reference for copy editors everywhere.

In this second edition, Saller adds new chapters, on the dangers of allegiance to outdated grammar and style rules and on ways to stay current in language and technology. She expands her advice for writers on formatting manuscripts for publication, on self-editing, and on how not to be “difficult.” Saller’s own gaffes provide firsthand (and sometimes humorous) examples of exactly what not to do. The revised content reflects today’s publishing practices while retaining the self-deprecating tone and sharp humor that helped make the first edition so popular. Saller maintains that through carefulness, transparency, and flexibility, editors can build trust and cooperation with writers.

The Subversive Copy Editor brings a refreshingly levelheaded approach to the classic battle between writers and editors. This sage advice will prove useful and entertaining to anyone charged with the sometimes perilous task of improving the writing of others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226240077
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing Series
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 161,742
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Carol Fisher Saller is editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A and writes the Editor’s Corner for the Chicago Manual of Style’s Shop Talk blog. She occasionally writes about language and writing in academe for Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education and is the author of several books for children, most recently the young adult novel Eddie’s War.

Read an Excerpt

The Subversive Copy Editor

Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

By Carol Fisher Saller

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Carol Fisher Saller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24010-7


The Subversive Copy Editor

Q / In a sentence like "the authors thank Natalie and Isabel for her editorial assistance," is it grammatically correct to use the pronoun herand not their?


From reading the letters to The Chicago Manual of Style Online's "Chicago Style Q&A," I'm guessing that many readers of this book are not professional copy editors. But that doesn't mean you don't copyedit. In the routines of almost any office job, a worker is likely to be responsible for a chunk of writing, and in any chunk of writing there is likely to be a problem. Solving problems with writing is what copyediting is. It includes at the very least a review of spelling, grammar, and style, and it often involves checking for accuracy, logic, structure, and elegance of expression. Years ago the periodical Copy Editor changed its name to Copyediting, for the reason that "the number of those who bear the title 'copy editor' decreases year on year." Copy Editor's editor at the time, Wendalyn Nichols, explained that "more corporations are developing custom publications, and editorial freelancers are branching out beyond the niches they could once remain in quite comfortably. Increasingly, people who edit copy must wear more than one hat." Perhaps as a result, much of the Q&A mail is from workers who aren't trained to copyedit and are looking for guidance.

Anyone who works with the words of others can benefit from advice to professional copy editors. Although I will tend to use the vocabulary I know best, that of a copy editor of book manuscripts, the same tenets can apply in the multitude of contexts where you handle work written by others: newspapers and magazines, corporate and nonprofit materials, online content, newsletters, advertisements, comic books, love letters ... well, maybe not love letters. Regardless of your title, I invite you to read on.


When you're faced with a new chunk of writing to tame, you might settle down with your favorite dictionary, your computer open to Google or Bing, The Chicago Manual of Style or another style guide, and any other references you use to guide your editing. You might sit in an office with five sharpened pencils on your desk. Or in a basement room, with pizza oozing grease onto the hard copy. You're armed with your own training and inclinations. Maybe your Delete-key finger is itching to stab at extraneous thats; maybe you laser in on punctuation. Or maybe you're the big-picture type, ready to put paragraph 1 at the end and write the opener from scratch.

Regardless of your modus operandi, when you start in on the process of reading the words and making editorial decisions, you are going to work for someone. You'll be vying for that person's approval and striving to meet his or her standards. And that person is ... the one who hired you? Nope. The writer? Not entirely. Yourself? Not even close.

Your ultimate boss is the reader. You, your boss, and your boss's boss all work for the same person, and you all have the same goal of making that person's reading experience the best it can be. I know you saw that coming. Common sense tells us that working on behalf of the reader is not really such a terribly subversive move. After all, that is the mission of the writer and the publisher, even if only for the obvious reason that pleasing readers sells the newspaper, the book, the blog, the widgets. Reassuring and impressing readers keeps them coming back. It persuades them to believe, to invest, to buy.

Since documents have various purposes, it makes sense for editors to tailor them to suit different groups of readers. Whoever hires an editor almost certainly will have a set of rules or guidelines for the editor to follow in doing just that. And when you are obliged to work within guidelines while editing, it's likely that at some point you're going to have to butt heads with someone — whether it's the employer who sets the style or a writer who flouts it. Indeed, editing for the reader routinely involves questioning established rules of style. How could it not? The style used for an article about a photo that "broke the Internet" is not necessarily appropriate for one written about immigration reform. Although the fundamental elements of well-crafted prose are basically the same for all writing, the details are not. A word like "pre-dewatering" can be workaday jargon in a memo about waste treatment — or a witticism in a poem for the New Yorker. Numbers like seven thousand three hundred and sixty-two may look fine spelled out once in a novel but would get out of hand in a department budget. Repetition can lend emphasis or organization, or it can just be annoying. Humor doesn't always fit.

Don't be alarmed: I'm not going to suggest that you sass back to your boss, toss out your stylebook, or forget what you know about semicolons and dangling modifiers. On the contrary, I'm going to insist that you know inside and out the rules you're charged with applying and the reasons behind them. Jettisoning a style rule or tenet of good writing doesn't have to mean sacrificing excellence. Rather, it can ensure it. Examples are legion. Here's one: some style guides dictate that upon first mention a person be identified by a full name. In news articles or trade books with an international readership, say, or in school texts destined for readers of mixed abilities and attention spans, the goals are to clarify and educate. Adding Margaret to Thatcher or William to Shake speare isn't likely to patronize and will allow a broader base of readers to follow the text without confusion. In specialized or technical documents, however, directed to a narrow group of experts, a writer might prefer the shorthand of the familiar name alone. In a literary journal article about Renaissance poetry that refers to Dante in passing, adding Alighieri might reflect poorly on the writer who states the obvious.

Although it's normal to tinker with a document in order to shape it for the intended reader, you shouldn't automatically expect to make a major overhaul. Fortunately for you, most writers are likely to be better acquainted than you are with the target audience of their work, and you would do well to think before you mess with their choices.

And that brings us to the next issue.


It's good to assume at the outset that a writer has written with her imagined reader in mind. If your writer is an expert, whatever her specialty — computer technology, poetry, fashion — she'll have been steeping in the jargon of that discipline for a while, and she's bound to use it, knowing that it's the best way to communicate with readers who speak the same dialect. Even if she's only recently researched the subject for a commissioned piece, she probably knows more than you do about it. In that way, the writer has already put her reader first, and now she can reasonably expect the editing process to push her prose a little further in the same direction. In her fantasies, your editing will produce a perfect, fascinating work of art. (In her nightmares, you will reduce her work to rubble, but never mind that.) Considering the responsibility this entails, then, let the writer become your second master.

One of the most counterproductive assumptions for young editors to make is that they are going to be working against recalcitrant writers who are ignorant of the rules. Copy editors are sometimes taught to say no, employing the vocabulary of rule enforcement — "It's unconventional," "It's not our style," "It's too expensive," "It will cause a delay." And sometimes we do have to say these things. But to see the writer-editor relationship as inherently adversarial is to doom yourself to a career of angst and stress. The writer's job is far more difficult than the copy editor's: the writer has to actually write the thing. It is your privilege to polish copy without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn't to slash and burn your way through a document 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.

For every writer with a tin ear who is helped by a competent editor, there is an inexperienced editor who will take a fresh and well-voiced text and edit the life out of it. He'll delete every comma that isn't justified in his high school grammar, and he'll put them in where the writer is trying to pick up speed. He will create tortuous constructions to avoid the passive, and he would lay down his life for a whom. For such editors, consistency trumps stylings that give a reader ease and confidence in the writer's authority. These types are obsessed with imposing rules — sometimes rules that are closer to superstitions — that serve only to hamstring the writer and impoverish his prose. It's no wonder they see the writer as a roadblock on the way to the straitened texts they work to achieve.

And then there is a related problem: editors obsessed with the larger issues, wanting a different story, a different argument, a different voice, preferably something closer to their own. Rather than take up the writer's mantle, they cut the cloth to fit themselves.

You might think that overachieving copy editors suffer from knowing too much, but the opposite is true. Knowing too little, they hang on white-knuckled to their small bag of tricks, unaware of the many alternatives.

So the first step in doing no harm is to expand your bag of tricks. A thorough knowledge of the rules and conventions of prose styling will arm you with confidence in choosing the right ones and rejecting the wrong ones. There's a difference between the considered breaking of a rule and a failure to observe it out of ignorance. With the former, you will have a reason and a plan; with the latter, you might just have a mess. You could find yourself blanching at a headline like "Press Recalls Typo-Filled Book and Says It Will Reprint."

If you aren't trained and confident in at least the basics of copyediting, you can't hope to give the readers what they deserve — or gain the respect of your writer. Knowing your stuff, you're ready to serve the reader by working intelligently and sensitively with the writer. If you're charged with following a style guide that you haven't yet mastered, then restraint — doing no harm — is your best tactic.

When you receive a document ready for copyediting, you, more than anyone else, are in a position to champion the writer and protect her project. Nobody else cares as much as you do about that particular work at that particular time. It's likely that no other overseer will read it again before distribution or publication. The editor who acquired it has been there and done that — he's on to courting the next deal. The manager or assigning editor thumbed through it and signed it off to you. The marketer is thinking about it as part of a greater plan; the print buyer isn't engaged with its content much at all. Who, if not you, will be the writer's advocate? If there's a problem — if the fiscal-year projections can't be revised in time, if a book index is too long — everyone benefits if you are thinking of the project as your own and pushing to get the best of everything for it.


People new to the publishing process might be surprised to learn that there is even such a thing as the copyediting stage. Don't writers proofread and polish and revise before the text is even submitted? Don't acquiring editors critique and send manuscripts to outside readers, and don't the authors refine and update on the basis of the feedback? Isn't the darned thing practically perfect by then?

Well, no.

In academic publishing, a journal article or book manuscript probably goes through more versions, more outside review, and more refining than any other kind of copy by the time it gets to the copy editor. But even so, when the writer and her peers read the manuscript, they tend to focus on the larger picture: the argument, the logic, the organization, and the clarity or accuracy of expression. If peer reviewers spot misspellings or grammar goofs or inconsistencies, they might point them out, but that isn't their mission. A copy editor not only keeps an eye on all that, but he is also taking careful notes and cross-checking hundreds of details. He will keep a style sheet of names and places and decisions to depart from house style. He is going to notice that footnote 43 cites page 12 of a particular article in the American Journal of Sociology, whereas the bibliography entry for that article indicates that the article begins on page 22. He recorded on his style sheet that Edward Mulholland appeared on page 51, and he will be suspicious when Edwin Mulholland pops up on page 372. He's the one who will find three different spellings of Tchaikowsky / Tchaikovsky / Tchaikovski and that chapter 3 is titled "The Untruth of the Gaze" in the table of contents but "The Untrue Gaze" at the chapter's opening.

In other kinds of publishing, copy will come to you having undergone much less scrutiny, sometimes directly from the writer. A news story may have been madly typed that morning by a stringer on the train to work. Your boss could hand you a letter to potential donors drafted with a Sharpie on the wrapper from her lunch burrito. You may have to start with larger tasks of rewriting before moving on to the finer points of spelling, punctuation, and internal consistency.

Now, I know there are readers among you — maybe those who are only just beginning to contemplate work as a copy editor — who are wondering, "How much does any of this really matter?"

The publishers who hire copy editors obviously believe that it matters a lot. It matters because inaccuracies and inconsistencies undermine a writer's authority, distract and confuse the reader, and reflect poorly on the company. If a page number in the table of contents is wrong, the data in table 4 is just as likely to be wrong. If Mia Wasikowska's name is misspelled, who's going to believe she actually gave the interview? Discriminating readers look for reasons to trust a writer and reasons not to. Sloppy expression and carelessness in the details are two reasons not to. The copy editor's job, then, is to ferret out such infelicities. We do this in order to help the writer forge a connection with the reader based on trust — trust that the writer is intelligent and responsible, and that her work is a reliable source. We do it to help craft an article that pleases, a report that allows the reader to coast along through its ideas without slowing for red lights at every corner. And we do it — don't we? — because we derive satisfaction and pride from knowing how.

As you read, you will listen for the writer's voice and become her imagined reader, mentally connecting the style of her prose to the message of her pages. You will learn to want what the writer wants, and you will edit to keep her from wandering off the path. When you perceive that what she wants in the moment gets in the way of her greater goals, that's when you step in.

I realize that some copy editors are never given an opportunity to communicate with the writers of the materials they edit. Although this arrangement does have its advantages, it will obviously prevent you from following some of the advice in the first four chapters of this book. I hope you will find the book — and even those chapters — helpful in any case. You, too, have a relationship with your writers, and it can be combative or collaborative, as you wish. You, too, can wish to do no harm; you, too, can listen for the writer's voice and work to protect and promote it.

With this in mind, let's lay the groundwork for an excellent author-editor relationship.

A / If the authors intend to thank both Natalie and Isabel for assistance, then their is the right choice. However, if the sentence means "The authors thank Natalie [for something other than assistance, but we aren't saying what] and [we also thank] Isabel for her assistance," then even if it is technically grammatical (debatable), it is nonetheless confusing. (Correct grammar does not mean everything's OK. "Striped sentences wish green habits" is grammatical.) In short, your sentence is a disaster and must be rewritten for clarity.


Excerpted from The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. Copyright © 2016 Carol Fisher Saller. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Introduction xi

Part 1 Working with the Writer, for the Reader 1

1 The Subversive Copy Editor 3

2 The Good Launch 13

3 Working for the Reader, through the Writer: Carefulness, Transparency, Flexibility 25

4 When Things Get Tough: The Difficult Author 37

5 The Misguided Martyr; or, Laying Down Your Life for the Serial Comma 49

6 Dear Writers: A Chapter of Your Own 63

Part 2 Working with Your Colleagues and with Yourself 85

7 When Things Get Tough (the Sequel): The Dangerous Manuscript 87

8 Know Thy Word Processor 101

9 The Living Deadline 111

10 That Damned Village: Managing Work Relationships 123

11 The Freelancer's Quandaries 137

12 Things We Haven't Learned Yet: Keeping Up Professionally 147

13 The Zen of Copyediting 157

14 You Still Want to Be a Copy Editor? Breaking In 165

Further Reading 169

Acknowledgments 175

Index 179

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