A copy editor’s daydream

It’s easy to get lost in the microcosm of your job and think that the rest of the world should be operating within your work-day paradigms. Today, for instance, I was editing an extremely poorly written blog post, and instead of whistling while I worked and cheerfully improving the piece, my to-author queries just started getting more and more touchy; I was enraged that such a person could exist, someone with such a paltry ability to form a solid sentence! With such little knowledge of punctuation and the difference between an em- and en-dash!

So I had to stop. Put it away. Breathe. Realize that I live in a weird, underground world that is detached from most people’s everyday reality. A world in which editors obsess over language precision and the correctness of a word for hours. A world in which you strive not to betray an author’s trust by changing a comma. A world in which, if our jobs are done well, no reader even thinks of our existence.

Dutch braid, attempt no. 1. #braidselfieBeing a copy editor makes you super-attuned (almost presciently) to detail, but it also makes you an ass. I don’t know why a knowledge of grammar makes people self-righteous, but being a copy editor is a fast track to unbearable party behavior. Guion can’t go out to dinner without me making snide remarks about apostrophes and how most people think “portobella” or “portabella” is the correct name of the mushroom “portobello.” I’ll launch into a tidy tirade if you talk about how your English teacher told you that two spaces belong between every sentence. It’s amazing that I have any friends at all.

Because it’s a hard thing to turn off, this editing nature. I’ve been reading a memoir by a stroke survivor, and instead of thinking, Wow, this woman is amazing, and she has overcome so much, all I can think is, Couldn’t she afford an editor? What is this run-on nonsense? What is the deal with these double spaces between sentences?

Many of my coworkers say that they can’t read for pleasure anymore because of this curse. Or, if they do read, they can only turn to the lowest common denominator fiction (e.g., Nelson DeMille), fiction that requires only a marginal part of your brain.

I don’t want to resort to that, but I admit that reading Proust was a heck of a lot harder than it might have been if I’d had a different profession. Or Faulkner. Or Woolf. Or any of the writers that I deeply love and admire. Since Infinite Jest, fiction has been much harder on me. I gravitate toward nonfiction now. I don’t even read the short stories in the New Yorker; they don’t interest me. I don’t know if this turn away from fiction can be blamed on my handful of years spent editing or on David Foster Wallace, but something significant in my reading life has shifted.

I miss stories, but I crave knowledge. I want to know about everything. Reading 100 books a year doesn’t seem like enough. It’s a foolish endeavor, to want to know everything, but it’s never felt like a vain striving. Rather, I’d like to class it with Annie Dillard’s deep curiosity about the universe, spanning from the vast Milky Way all the way down to the mystical formation of a butterfly in its chrysalis. I want to know about all of these things, and I want to be able to tell these stories.

Goat moth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t pretend to have Dillard’s level of beautiful, boundless curiosity, but I can aspire to it. To know, to have precision, to be curious; I think of these as developing attributes of my small life as a copy editor.

I have, perhaps, always been this way; it’s just now that I’m realizing that my love of being a copy editor has fit perfectly within my natural design. Being a good editor means knowing right from wrong; valuing precision; internalizing arcane details of our complex and often nonsensical language; memorizing rules; ably recalling information about history, politics, and culture; possessing all of this knowledge and holding it at the ready, on a precipice of your brain.

I learned to read when I was 3; I enjoyed being sent to time-out because it meant I could stay in my room and read; I read straight through our set of encyclopedias when I was 7 or 8 (remember when you had physical encyclopedias? An alphabetized set that probably lived in your parent’s basement?). When I got to “D,” my mother had to explain the birds and the bees to me earlier than she expected, because I was confused as to why a woman would use a diaphragm during something called “intercourse.” I memorized the names of exotic animals and thought of them as my invisible companions. (Guion and I have been watching David Attenborough’s fabulous documentary series, “The Life of Mammals,” and every episode brings me this childlike glee when I can successfully identify an unusual animal. A tapir! A pangolin! A dik-dik! Heaven!)

As a child, I wanted all of the information (a history, a theory, a flood), and a large part of me still does.

I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

66 thoughts on “A copy editor’s daydream

  1. When I started nurse training I was always shocked to meet people who were not sick. The day job can be too absorbing – had to learn that life is not always seriously life-threatening and dropping the occasional apostrophe was such a relief!

    1. Being a nurse takes so much out of you. Then to be sick. You wonder which came first. I dream of a job of my passion of photography. Leave your work at work and enjoy the beauty of the world

  2. I was nodding my head through this entire post. I edit material for one client who has helped me perfect my anger management skills. The text is riddled with “in order to,” “irregardless,” “1” instead of “one,” and other things that make me want to become an axe murderer. And I tried venting to a friend about it once, and she was just like, “yeah, that sucks. Are you going to finish that pie?” I also used the word “matriarchal” once at a house party, and some guy was like, “I’ve never heard anyone say matriarchal at a party before.” It’s tough being so cool.

    1. I laughed out loud at: “It’s tough being so cool.” That it is, Lilly. We editors have a hard life! Thanks for your comment!

  3. I am frequently verbally flogged by my family and accused of being a member of the Grammar Police for my constant corrections. Lately, I have been keeping my mouth shut even when I hear my employer say, “I done done it.” That’s right, how is it that he isn’t working for me. I salute you, copy editors, for your wisdom and ability to continually slap the ruler! It’s a good deed you are doing for those of us who just need intelligent life at the end of a very long day!

  4. I loved it. I love grammar and I love sentence structure and all that jazz, but I just feel like I don’t know enough of it. I wish I could retain it the way you do. I know once or twice I looked up the difference between an en and em dash and for a short time I remembered, but without the daily practice of it, I lost it.
    I genuinely salute you and wish I could be half the ass you are!

  5. I’m so glad to find I’m not alone! I’ve wandered into editing so I’m by no means an expert but I take great joy in fixing punctuation and grammatical errors. I see it in print and hear it in speech and it’s a real effort not to pick up on everything. It’s like a game though, a game where I get to play at improving somebody’s work.

    Sadly I’m learning that interpreting another’s sentiment and restructuring their sentences so that they don’t look foolish or inarticulate isn’t always well received. Thankfully I can let go enough to enjoy a good book, although I normally have to note down any mistakes as I read through, just for my own peace of mind.

    Doesn’t half make me paranoid about posting though! There’s probably mistakes in this as well, but please point them out – I’m still learning.

  6. I’m older and wiser now (and perhaps a little less inclined to have a nice rant), but the misplaced apostrophe still has the power to annoy, together with ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’, ‘lay’ instead of ‘laid’, and people who don’t understand how to use a semicolon. I enjoyed this a lot. Don’t give up your mission to make it right!

  7. If it’s written, it gets under my skin. If it’s spoken, I can let it slide. So even though I’m the editor, it’s my software-engineer brother who tends to correct other people’s grammar at gatherings.

  8. I’m an English tutor, so I get what you’re saying here. Most people believe English is too picky, too subjective, and not enough like math. At least you can laugh at the errors. I can’t because the person who made them is generally sitting next to me.
    I also get what you’re saying about non-fiction. Even if you just want a good story, a true story is often better than a made-up one. All I want to know right now is a sure-fire way to make money on comic strips, and of course no book will tell me that. Doesn’t hurt to read up on the subject though. http://pezcita.wordpress.com/

  9. I tell you what, an editor’s life is a life for me; it is absolutely a passion. I am currently volunteering my time and working my craft in the publishing world for a startup magazine, and an independent publisher. I hope to one day be able to make a full-time career out of editing.

  10. “I can’t pretend to have Dillard’s level of beautiful, boundless curiosity, but I can aspire to it. To know, to have precision, to be curious; I think of these as developing attributes of my small life as a copy editor.” This quote is golden and inspires me!

    I understand how you feel and it can be said that is goes the same way for designers. When my (now) husband went to SFSU for industrial design, I would sit in on a few of his classes because design excites me. Although my major was B.E.C.A., I felt having knowlege of the design process would be valuable. There was an awesome proffessr, Mr. Jones, who was really in a league of his own for typography, he taught us all about “TYPECRIMES” which even big companies sometimes commit. Typecrimes come in all shapes and forms including: overuse, cliche, contrived etc.. but the worst is using a font that is downright illegible or not expedient for the media it is applied to. After that class…. we would start noticing them “everywhere”, from billboards to commericals and posters. It has been a long running joke between a few of us that when we see really bad typography, we point and say “That makes MR JONES SAD”

    P.S. As my boyfriend and I were discussing what he should do for the final project, the first thing that popped into my mind was to make an exploitation poster play off of the “Passion of the christ” into “Passion of the TYPE” with Mr Jones and his iconic dreadlocks instead of Jesus. It would have been awesome but my bf looked at me sideways and said it was a great idea but would’t be good to play russian roullette with your final.

  11. This is my life. I’ve always been a grammar geek since I was roughly seven or eight years old. When I read Facebook statuses, I am so close to de-friending almost everyone because of their grammar mistakes!

  12. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I enjoy blogging for the connections it brings. As to the writing, editing and rewrites help me enjoy the guilty pleasure of feeding my OCD. Sometimes, I just can’t stop.

  13. Being a Software Quality Assurance Engineer, I feel just as same as you. You correct words, we correct the in-tangible logics, softwares and yes, we feel, at times, the same. How come we have friends. It is amazing that with that bitchy (read professional) attitude, we are having friends.

  14. I empathise. I’m a copy editor and I can find it hard to switch that side of my brain off to enjoy a novel or a conversation with a normal person. A woman I was going out with years ago once pronounced “pedant” as “pee-dant” (the irony!), and I couldn’t help myself. Correcting her turned out not to be a *great* idea.

    But part of being a professional nit-picker is knowing which nits not to pick. It’s like spending time with relatives who have political views you dislike: you learn to bite your tongue because it’s better for everyone that way. If all else fails, I tell myself that while the house style for this person’s language is not the one I’d use, that’s not my business. I can go off-duty without betraying my own standards.

  15. I fell into work as an editor when my writing stood out on an international forum. My skills were especially coveted because I am a native English speaker and the founders of the group were in the process of translating their original publications, which are in Russian. Because I deeply understood the subject matter, which is specialized, they trusted me to handle the nuances that could easily be lost in translation.

    The work was immediately enjoyable, but I actually investigated what an editor was because I wasn’t sure I was doing it right and my client kept acknowledging my professionalism. I was amazed to find out my personality and love of language fit editing like a glove. I think the intense curiosity to know things is a big part of it.

    In my recollection I haven’t corrected people at parties or even in conversation (well, maybe my husband sometimes), but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the urge. My clients and friends for whom English is not their first language are so eager to perfect their English that they actually *ask* me to correct them, so that might scratch that itch for me.

    Reading for pleasure now can be a challenge, but who could stop?

    Loved your piece.

  16. Reading this piece makes me feel like I’m not crazy, or at least, if I am, it’s okay to be! And if you want to read the worst copy ever edited, check out anything by Ernest Hemingway. It’s enough to put a copy editor into an apoplectic fit!

  17. I’m pretty sure I annoy all of my friends by correcting them when they say things like “where are you at?” or “Would you like to come with Kelly and I?” I would like to know why it’s acceptable for other people to annoy me with their poor grammar, but it’s not okay for me to annoy them back by correcting it?

  18. Please please please continue to be a detail oriented copy editor…the world needs way more of them. I’m on your side. I am constantly adding “ly” under my breath when someone uses an adjective instead of an adverb. And don’t ask my husband about how often I correct his pronunciation. Ugh. I also understand how being that way can isolate you. I love the last quote, that describes my fascination with the natural world to a T.

  19. Beautiful post! I too feel that I have an insatiable curiosity regarding the world around me and a desire to hold perhaps more knowledge than I can handle. I also find Annie Dillard to be an excellent author whose curiosity is indeed admirable. Other party-goers exist, I believe, who are interested in the 28 muscles of a goat moth and who know how to spell portobello, and they will appreciate you as you will appreciate them!

  20. “I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly.” This line cracks me up! Serious question though: no double spaces between sentences? Guess I’ll have to go back into edit mode…again – lol! Appreciate your humor and writing style. Best, J

  21. I have never read your blog before or any of the “similar” blogs before .. I must say I was hooked ! It’s beautifully written. And yes I am so loving your hairdo !!

  22. I can relate to everything in this article. Except two things: I still love to read fiction when I’m on vacation, and my family’s set of World Book encyclopedias lived in my bedroom, not the basement, and then in my apartments for many years as an adult. Throwing them out just five years ago left me on the verge of being hospitalized. Ah, that tyrannical, unsquelchable inner editor. She can check out anytime she wants, but she can never leave.

  23. I once had a job with a company that published technical books. They solicited manuscripts for a series of books about sewage sludge. Most of the manuscripts came from well-educated people whose first, second and third languages were not English. I will not utter the word that kept running through my mind.

  24. Your right. Its’ a burden. Text is just part of the beautiful world. As e.e.cummings noted: since feeling is first, who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.
    But there is no way I’d kiss someone who had bad grammar!

  25. You’d probably go nuts if you’d read my posts 🙂 English is my second language but it’s almost like a universal theme that connects you to others. I, as a psychologist, have gone through similar problems with people. After learning so many things about people, their lives and body language, it is very hard to attend to their voice or messages. But, I’ve learned to put it aside and enjoy and I hope you will. Now, you might spot a few mistakes in my comment and they’ll serve as the first lesson of letting go 🙂 Smile more and enjoy and I loved the portobello piece.

  26. Great post and I too, was nodding my head to many of your tidbits. Can I ask how you got into the editing business/world? When I was young I wanted to be a writer or an editor so badly, but as I got older, those dreams faded and I became interested in science and technology, but now as I get older, I feel the world of words calling me again. How does a 29 year old post undergrad with a Meteorology degree get into your world?

    Thanks for the story and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

      1. How did you get a job as a copy editor? Did you know someone, or just find it on Monster? I don’t even know where to begin 🙂

  27. As an author, I would simply like to say something on behalf of other authors everywhere. I am sorry for every gramatical error, comma drop-misplace-neveruse issue that each and every editor goes through. I am sorry that I will never learn to keep in and to together and will most likely bugger up then and than when the muses strike! I as an author apprecaite everything that you oh sweet dear editor do to keep our insanity within the scope of what we hoped to write! And I am sorry if your correction of my wounderous-stressful-selfenduced-torment brings out the mother bear tendencies we authors tend to show. Thank you so very much for your saint like patience even when you feel like jumping threw the computer monitor and ripping our fingers off our hands. This author loves all of the editors out there because with out all of you reading would be such a hardship, especially with the disesemblement of the english language thanks entirely to laziness and the internet.

    Lastly, I am sorry for any errors in this comment, after all I am only an author.

  28. I am a recovering copyeditor and proofreader, and I can readily identify with much in this post. I haven’t done as much copyediting (speaking of which, should it be copyeditor, copy editor, or copy-editor; answer: it depends on your style guide and never mind that man behind the serial-comma curtain), except of my own material, these days, but I have written about this linguistics issue of prescriptivism versus descriptivism–recently, for Words Matter Week. In particular, I’ve noted how I am slip-sliding into descriptivism as I age–some might say I’m becoming less facile with language as my memory dulls a bit!–but previous commenter and copy editor Tom Freeman said it pretty well about knowing what nits to pick and when. In any case, I loved reading this article and wanted to offer you congratulations on being Freshly Pressed (I don’t know whether I would have found your blog or article otherwise).

  29. Now seventy-one years old, I became hooked on grammar in the sixth grade and never let go. When I self-published my first nonfiction book five months ago, I did so without paying for editorial services. Over the years I had cringed at grammar and spelling errors passed to readers by traditional publishers, which actually encouraged me that I was capable of a better product. I invite you to be the judge.

  30. English is not my first language but I really try to follow those strict grammatical rules especially when I am writing. Grammar and phonetics and vocabulary are one of the most relevant features when trying to communicate.

  31. Your post hits this copy editor (and story-writer, and nonfiction reader of 100+ books a year) almost close enough to home to be creepy.

    Just this morning I was struck by the online-dating profile of someone who would otherwise interest me, pausing when I got to the lines, “I can’t spell and have really bad grammar, which you’ll probably notice. And I don’t understand why people are always so up in arms about it.” It made my breath catch, because suddenly I was afraid I was wrong, judgmental, small-minded for reacting the way I do to other people’s fault-full communication. I’m still not sure I can express in full, rational detail why I feel the way I do about language and expression, but I *can* say that I’m glad people need help with it, because it’s kept me in a job for many, many years.

    Great post; glad to stumble on your words.

  32. Not only in text: I was the proofreader for Leonard Bernstein’s Mass before it’s premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1970s.

    Copyediting a music score has ramifications other than “right” and “wrong.” For example, say a movement is too high for a new singer so it’s decided to transpose it down from A-flat to F. A reasonable decision. But, to avoid wasted time in rehearsal, a proofreader would notice that now the oboe part goes too low and cannot be played on the instrument.

    Today’s music typesetting software would catch these kinds of things, but back then all the music was copied by hand. Hence, that transposition from A-flat to F had a cost: all the orchestra parts would have to be recopied to the new key.

    One thing you mentioned in your post: copyeditors sitting around for hours working through a decision on the correct way to phrase something. This struck a chord with me. Later in the 1970s I worked with three other musicians as music arrangers at a large music-publishing house. One of our responsibilities was to arrange sheet music for publication. This was always a challenge. We needed to find a middle ground between notating everything that went on in a piece (same key as the record, the bass line, guitar riffs, soloist, and background singers …) and making it playable by a fourth year piano student with not much effort.

    To my point: We had this song, performed by Kris Kristofferson, that consisted of 8 measure phrases. On the final phrase of the piece, it ended on the downbeat (first beat) of measure 7 of the phrase. There was an intense, if relatively brief, discussion about whether we should put an eighth measure at the end to give it 8 measures and make the phrase complete

    Consider: We argued about whether to include a measure of silence, for goodness sake!

    Copyeditor nerds also exist in other disciplines.

  33. Hi,
    I am considering an online copy editing course and was hoping you could tell me what the job is really like? No doubt you will read my comment and spot 1000 grammatical mistakes (or less). Is it a job that can be completed from home, does it take up a lot of time, and is the time worth the payment?


  34. I started reading at an early age as well, and was known as a walking encyclopedia. If people had asked me for grammatical advice, I could not have given much more than what is learned in fourth grade though I completed multiple school and college level writing courses. I consult writing handbooks and rely on memory of what it looks like in certain writings I’ve memorized. Write a first draft and check it over, correct as I go. Your talent for copy editing is a gift. You’re not “self-righteous” for being the proud owner of an exquisite lexicon–and then also having the nerve to use it. ^_^

    And I don’t get the double-spaced thing either. It’s annoying.

    Great post!

  35. Boy, I wish it weren’t too late to edit my comment. There’s the title of the piece (Mass) in the first sentence that I didn’t put in italics. Then there’s “it’s” instead of “its.”

    Then there’s the unfinished idea of the final sentence in paragraph two. It should have an additional sentence or two that says, “The proofreader would send it back to the composer, arranger or orchestrator to rearrange the parts; the copyists would recopy all the parts that were affected by the change. This way the rehearsal would run smoothly.”

    Oh well. I never catch them all.

  36. I’m sending you an endless supply of red pens for your personal use. No ink erasers included. ;/

    Editors are necessary and are, for the most part, very helpful. But, I cannot help but think that the red pens move us closer to writing like everyone else. Smacks of the Stepford Wives Approach.

    (Now, I know your trusty red pen is waiting and ready.) 🙂

  37. I copy edit for a living too and I’m always torn as to what to do. I don’t want to make people feel uneasy but it’s hard not to say anything. A case in point would be when my 4 year old brought back from preschool a cardboard house she had made there. Our surname ends in ‘s’. On the front of the house, in big letters, you could read Child Saunder’s house instead of Child Saunders’ house. I wanted to cry…

  38. This post reminded me somewhat of Josie from Never Been Kissed. I absolutely adore that film and Drew Barrymore’s role in it, simply because she is a Copy Editor and I love the work they do. I also love that she didn’t much like her job role and instead, pushed for writing Fiction.

    All you’ve said here put a smile on my face. I hope to become a Copy Editor myself someday and for some reason, I crave this kind of frustration.

  39. Beautifully written. I also read the encyclopedias as a child. My mother had some old ones called “University Bookshelf” volumes. My favorites were the volumes on fiction and fantasy and the gorgeous book plates of fairies.

  40. Hi Abby, what a wonderful post! I love your writing style. As other people have said, it was eerie how closely you mirrored my own experiences. I wish I had the time to learn everything! I have experience doing technical editing in the corporate world, and this has taught me a lot about how to focus on critical aspects of clarity while letting other things go. (I still gnash my teeth over billboards with misplaced apostrophes, though. How can that possibly happen? 🙂 )

  41. I had never honestly given “the Editor” much thought, until recently when one of my friends and co-workers volunteered to edit my prose. Once I understood she was trying to help me (and once I got over all the red ink) I saw the value in the profession, and that people like you and her are here to help me. She has gone so far as to push me to publish, though I doubt she will edit my draft for free.

    And, if a woman came up to me at a party and imparted such knowledge on a moth, I would be impressed and attracted. But I’m weird like that.

    A great post, and I love the liberal use of “commas “.

  42. Oh dear! I’ve just entered the world of editing non-fiction and thought about making a career out of editing fiction but I love reading too much! I don’t want to hurt my view about fiction reading, or perhaps I can edit fiction I don’t like to read.

    I disliked the double space rule in highschool. Never made sense to me.

    Great post!

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