The Subversive Copy Editor – not just for copy editors …

I’ve been reading The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice From Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships With Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago Press, 2009). I’m reading it as a writer, not an editor, although I do work with other writers on their writing, so I’m gleaning some information from this about that.

As I like to tell beginning writers, the best classes I’ve studied were not in writing instruction (although they were quite good), but the classes on editing. And the most valuable information I gained from those editing classes wasn’t so much how to edit as how to be edited. How to work with an editor to make your writing the very best it can be for the sake of your readers.

Everyone needs an editor, and the best editors are worth their weight in gold. A good editor will always make you look better. That’s their job. So it still shocks me when I hear writers say, “Editors are too expensive. I’ll just ask my mother to copy edit this novel. Besides, I’ve used spell-check all the way through and I’m pretty good at grammer … ” or worse, “I don’t want an editor changing my words,” or THE worst, “I fired an editor, because she didn’t understand what I was trying to do with this novel.”

Before uttering these statements, all writers should at least read The Subversive Copy Editor and discover exactly how an editor works with a writer, and why, and what a good editor can offer that no one else is capable of doing in order to help that writer produce the best manuscript possible. You could even get away with reading only one chapter, Dear Writer, A Chapter of Your Own, although I urge you to at least skim the rest of the book. I’ve been madly underlining key passages I’ve read that are particularly helpful to me in dealing with other writers, and not necessarily with editing their writing so much as just in dealing with them and their careers. The better to explain details of the entire publishing business to these writers. When you know how the publishing business works, you become a more effective partner in the business of your book.

Here are a couple of poignant passages:

But I don’t mean to worry you. Statistically speaking, I believe that the number of copy editors murdered by their authors is fairly low. In my experience, in fact, the more published the writer, the more tolerant and grateful he is for the copy editor’s help … Our task, regardless, is not to analyze the writer’s insecurities, but to provide the best end product possible for the reader. p.32

True, the writer’s name is in the byline, but it’s not the author’s right to offend or confuse the reader, defy the rules of Standard English, fail to identify sources, or lower the standards of your institution. p.41

And, specifically for the writer:

You may be tempted to dismiss her perception of a problem as imaginary, but that would be a mistake. If one reader stumbles, others may, too, and you would do well to address the issue.

After all, the three Cs of Copy Editing are clarity, consistency, and correctness. Every editor has had these words drilled into their minds, and it’s the attention to these three specific words that they bring to any manuscript or piece of writing. When you learn how to work with an editor, as a team and not as adversaries, you create the very best for the person you’re both actually working for – The Reader!


4 responses

  1. What an interesting post. It irritates me when people say copy editors are so expensive, it’s worth the money!!
    Thanks for the post 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, Tom!

  2. A fantastic book! And you’re so right – even editors need editors!!

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