I called my manager editor (hereafter, ManEd) about a sticky copyediting problem. ManEd cheerfully offered to help me talk my problems through. He is a good ManEd.
“So I decided to set ‘roman’ lowercase when talking about typography, like you would brussels sprouts or french fries,” I started.
“That sounds good,” he said in the kind of encouraging tone he probably uses on his kids.
“Right. But here’s my problem.” And then I read him the following sentence: “Modern roman font is based on ancient Roman capitals.”
“Oh.” ManEd sounded like someone much larger and meaner than he had just stolen his lunch money.
“Exactly.” A good copyeditor is like a good stage hand. If we do our job right, you won’t even know we’ve been there, but the show goes smoothly.
Roman/roman in the same sentence might make the reader question the publisher’s editorial team. This is the kind of horror that keeps a copyeditor up at night. Oh, the dishonor.
We threw around a few ideas that were icky, like leaving roman uppercase, which was a bad style decision, because it crosses Chicago, and because it is inconsistent. Oh, the dishonor.
Finally we decided that we could rephrase the sentence and the horrible pain and fear of dishonor immediately ceased. The reader won’t notice my sleight of hand. ManEd and I won’t die of horror. We live to publish books another day.
What lives have you saved today?
I just read an article about farmhouse kitchens. It was high on pictures (fun) and low on prose (thank god). “Modern farmhouse kitchens hark back to a simpler time,” the article gushed. This is one of my editorial pet peeves.
Have you read Laura Ingalls Wilder? Raising children in a dugout in the ground is not simple. Have you ever churned butter, butchered a hog, or washed your clothes in a river? Me neither. It does not sound easy.
The only way you can live a comfortable life as a woman is to marry well. Will you find a man that respects you? Do you even like men? And people say online dating is difficult. On OKCupid, or whatever people use these days (I’m a Craigslist find, myself), you can click on boxes that say whether you want or don’t want children, among a million other options.
Let’s keep a little history in mind when we write or read cliches. Now let me go back to my editorial work. Books don’t publish themselves, although we no longer have to set type. Thank god.
What’s your pet peeve?
You know what I hate? Prescriptivists. Those are the people who grieve because the Internet is now lowercase. They decry the singular “they,” and probably put two spaces after their periods. (Which, spoiler alert, comes from the days of monospaced font and typewriters.) They sniff at people who begin sentences with “because.” Because that’s what their high school English teachers taught them.
Language changes, and it is my job as a copyeditor to keep up. It is the Chicago Manual of Style’s job to keep up as well. Just because I learned one rule doesn’t mean that it will never go away. We are not engineers after all. Style rules are not scientific laws. Language is dynamic and fuckity like the people who use it.
What do you hate today?
I very rarely point out other people’s written errors when I’m not paid to do so. I like to call it my work–life balance. (Yes, that should be an en dash. No, WordPress has never heard of an en dash. Yes, these things keep me up nights.)
Those of you who know the real-life persona behind Indy Clause might be surprised that I can keep my opinions to myself. All I can say is that it is a struggle. Your support is greatly appreciated.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on Obscure Historical Figure in order to finish The Fucker. My favorite librarian is tired of hearing from me as my book requests get more and more arcane. My overdue fines have become a dedicated income stream for my local library.
In preparation for yet another interlibrary loan request, I looked up a book description online. I just happened to notice that there were no apostrophes in the entire catalog copy description, despite four or five places where apostrophes were clearly needed. This was a university press website.
I thought about it for a few seconds. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Readers, I did. I emailed someone on the copyediting staff and said very politely that I had noticed these errors and thought they might wish to know about them.
Five minutes later I got a very polite email back saying that the backlist books had gone through various databases that had probably stripped the original copy of its apostrophes. She then (very politely) bewailed the fact that they did not have enough staff to correct all of the errors, but that she would correct the copy for that book.
I neither asked for a job nor encouraged her to exploit unpaid interns. I considered my duty discharged. I think I wasn’t an asshole. And I guess that’s good enough for today.
Copyeditors are the oldest children of the publishing world. They follow and enforce rules set by other people. They are responsible, hold writers to a high standard, and are in general smug and insufferable. And they hate to be crossed.
I got questioned the other day about APA style in the course of a gig. Now, I may be ignorant of a ton of things—my retail experience alone taught me that I can count to 100 fifteen different ways—but I’ve got APA chapter and verse. If I looked it up, I am right. I stamp my feet and say, “because I said so!”.
I didn’t say it was pretty. [Rude comment about older sisters redacted as I have not talked to Cougar in days because she insists on going to other countries and calling me only when I’m at Second Job. Not that you guys care, sorry.]
My role cracks me up because I am the youngest child. I didn’t even have authority over my stuffed animals. (My friends used to turn them against me. I wish I were kidding.) Now I rule over a very small kingdom, placing dots on the page. And, by god, I was right about that point of style.
How bossy are you?
I’ve never been the kind of person who swoons over accents (except for Fitz Simmons, but that’s more the whole package) or paid attention to royalty. However I’ve discovered a strange prejudice. I expect British scientists, as a whole, to write better than American scientists. However, my last two papers written by Brits prove me wrong. I went so far to check whether that and which have different usage rules in British English than in American English for my last paper. They don’t.
(For those who care: “that” is used when it is essential for understanding the clause. For example, This is the dog that we’re giving to my sister in law, our own dog is asleep under the table. You need “that” to understand which dog I’m talking about. Which is used when it is a throwaway clause and always has a comma before it, unless you’re using it the way I did in the previous sentence. Don’t you love English? The book, which has an ugly cover in my opinion, is on the table.)
My current paper has the phrase “and hence, subsequently, the model shows that purple daisies do not summon fairies.” Maybe I made up the last part, but hence, subsequently? Please.
Or this one: “The numerical model representing the supercooled immunosuppressed green fluorescent protein (GFP) actually systematically underestimates the actual verdant nature of the GFP.” (Note, I did NOT make up the GFP, although I did use it in a nonstandard manner.)
What are your dumb prejudices?
It’s my job to be cynical, to suspect you’ve made a mistake until you’ve proved me wrong. When I read as a copyeditor, I balance each word. I am the mirror that magnifies your pores, the light that makes you look a few years older. I don’t believe there’s a period at the end of your sentence until I check it, and then I check it again to make sure it isn’t a spot on my computer screen masquerading as a period. I always think you can do better.
This is not how I read all of the time. When I’m reading for fun, I don’t read carefully enough to notice these things. And when I’m reading for a critique, I assume your commas are correct—although I mark them if they are not.
Everyone else in the production process is trying to make the writer meet deadlines, to produce the correct word count, to make sure that the instructions for making tofu curry won’t poison the readers. Someone has to check the small stuff, someone who cares whether it’s towards (British) or toward (American).
Copyediting is both a job and a frame of mind. It can be hard to get out of my frame of mind when I’m not being paid for it. So in general I try not to point out typos, etc., unless someone asks. My copyediting brain is not a place of mercy. For that, I have to rely on my other skills.
When do you show mercy?