The Subversive Copy Editor
Carol Fisher Saller
The University of Chicago Press $13.00
I’m not sure I would have been aware of this terrific little book but for the fact that the author is a friend of mine from a long time ago with whom I recently reconnected. Carol Fisher Saller is the editor of the Q&A page at The Chicago Manual of Style Online, and has put years of experience as a copy editor into this gem.
Although the book is being pitched primarily to copy editors, I believe writers will also get a lot out of it. In fact, one chapter of the book is addressed to writers, and that’s filled with good advice about dealing with publishers and editors, but the reality is that these days we writers often are our own copy editors, and so we should understand better what it is that copy editors do.
What I found most interesting in the book was that in some areas--for example, where style is involved, as opposed to grammar--editors at Chicago have some flexibility. It may be that other publishers using other style guides don’t have the same latitude, but I find the approach refreshing. (My freshman composition students would probably be surprised to hear this about flexibility, but that’s only because they weren’t listening to me when I talked about "style.") One example that Saller gives I found especially welcome because of the amount of time I spend in class harping on it, and how often I see the mistake made in student writing. She describes various changes in the CMoS over the years, including one where they changed back to the original: “In [an earlier edition], in a matter where style intrudes upon grammar, we flirted shamelessly with using ‘their’ as a nonsexist pronoun in singular contexts. (We aren’t proud of that little indiscretion. Even then, we relegated it to a footnote in small type.)” In other words, even for the flexible University of Chicago Press, “their” is plural. Period. Good for them.
The book is filled with genuine advice for those involved in copyediting, and yet it is very funny in places. Entertainment is not its sole purpose, but it does educate with humor. (Unlike the best-selling Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which was appealing because it was very funny, but only minimally informative.)
This sampling of chapter titles gives a sense of what to expect: “When Things Get Tough: The Difficult Author”; “Dear Writers: A Chapter of Your Own”; “Know Thy Word Processor”; and “The Zen of Copyediting.”
It’s a very readable book, and worth a writer’s time.