Working with the Author, for the Reader

fisher-subversive-copy-editorTo copyedit is to confront and solve an endless series of problems, great and small.
Carol Fisher Saller

Q / What could possibly be subversive about copy editors?

Aren’t copy editors pinched-nosed mousy types with bifocals and buttoned-up blouses? Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor (University of Chicago Press, 2009), thinks not.

A senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, Saller is the voice behind the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. She wrote The Subversive Copy Editor in response to two kinds of questions that make up the bulk of her mail: queries seeking confirmation that “I’m right” about something, and cries for help from writers and editors who have “hit a wall.”

She establishes in the introduction that the book is not a primer on the fundamentals of copy editing, but rather a handbook on relationships:

Consider this a “relationship” book, because I’m going to talk about the main relationships in your work life—with the writer, with your colleagues, and with yourself—in ways that you might not have considered before. Ways that might be called subversive. (p. xiii)

When I consider my work as a copy editor of scholarly books, subversive is not an adjective that springs to mind. Careful and correct and, reluctantly, conservative more accurately describe my experience.

But Saller argues that good copy editors are subversive on two fronts: First, they owe their loyalty not to their boss or even to the author, but to the reader. Second, they know when to break the rules.

A “subversive” copy editor assumes a collaborative relationship with the author, not an adversarial one. To develop rapport with an author, Saller recommends carefulness, transparency, and flexibility.

Carefulness: Do no harm.

Transparency: Don’t sneak in changes.

Flexibility: Don’t fight over commas.

Saller serves up her editing philosophy with a spoonful of humour. Here is a taste:

I know from reading the Q&A mail over the years that when it comes to our editing decisions, it can be very, very difficult to be “flexible”… When we know a rule and have taken pains to impose it consistently through a document only to meet with the writer’s resistance, our instinct is to go down fighting. It’s a matter of honor. Of professional pride. And maybe even, just a little bit, of power. “My author insists on…” is one of the most frequent openers to Q&A… The very wording tells me that you are locked in a battle of wills. And by god, we have our standards. (p. 27)

Saller reminds us that the point of editing is not to win a battle, but to build a bridge between the author and reader.

If you are a copy editor, you will feel that Saller is speaking directly to you. It’s such a relief to know that someone else knows and cares about the countless decisions, and indecisions, that make up a day-in-the-life.

A / Well, if you don’t know by now, you’ll just have to read the book.

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