The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing)

Each year writers and editors submit over three thousand grammar and style questions to the Q&A page at The Chicago Manual of Style Online. Some are arcane, some simply hilarious—and one editor, Carol Fisher Saller, reads every single one of them. All too often she notes a classic author-editor standoff, wherein both parties refuse to compromise on the “rights” and “wrongs” of prose styling: “This author is giving me a fit.” “I wish that I could just DEMAND the use of the serial comma at all times.” “My author wants his preface to come at the end of the book. This just seems ridiculous to me. I mean, it’s not a post-face.”

In The Subversive Copy Editor, Saller casts aside this adversarial view and suggests new strategies for keeping the peace. Emphasizing habits of carefulness, transparency, and flexibility, she shows copy editors how to build an environment of trust and cooperation. One chapter takes on the difficult author; another speaks to writers themselves. Throughout, the focus is on serving the reader, even if it means breaking “rules” along the way. Saller’s own foibles and misadventures provide ample material: “I mess up all the time,” she confesses. “It’s how I know things.”

Writers, Saller acknowledges, are only half the challenge, as copy editors can also make trouble for themselves. (Does any other book have an index entry that says “terrorists. See copy editors”?) The book includes helpful sections on e-mail etiquette, work-flow management, prioritizing, and organizing computer files. One chapter even addresses the special concerns of freelance editors.

Saller’s emphasis on negotiation and flexibility will surprise many copy editors who have absorbed, along with the dos and don’ts of their stylebooks, an attitude that their way is the right way. In encouraging copy editors to banish their ignorance and disorganization, insecurities and compulsions, the Chicago Q&A presents itself as a kind of alter ego to the comparatively staid Manual of Style. In The Subversive Copy Editor, Saller continues her mission with audacity and good humor.

 

Nanci Arvizu, Writing and Reviews Editor

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3 Comments

  1. It’s like finding out your mother smokes! Editors break rules. How liberating! Carol Fisher Saller’s “Subversive Copy Editor” confirms what I learned as a scientist: The more you know about a subject, the less dogmatic your opinions. Rules can be broken; editors do make stupid mistakes. Saller brings great common sense and, yes, sharp business acumen to her profession. The book reminds you that if an author–consistently–has styled his 985 references in a totally nonstandard, but logical style, what’s the point in undoing all the…

  2. Witty, humane, real-world advice I’m a manuscript editor at a university press and I can’t say enough good things about this book. I’ve long enjoyed Ms. Saller’s clever answers in the Q&A section on the Chicago Manual of Style website, so I was predisposed to think well of her, but this book just cemented my respect and admiration. Her advice to editors (and to writers) ranges, for me, from the “I can’t believe I never thought of that” variety to the “I have thought of that, but could never have said it so well” variety. This…

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