A minor incident from my youth, which should have been taken as a strong sign that I was destined to become a copy editor:
I was 16, and I was taking a composition class at the local community college for college credit. My teacher was a young-ish, brown-haired woman with a pleasant disposition, which is all I can remember about her, save for this one moment.
We had been assigned to write a dramatic retelling of a childhood memory. I wrote a heavy-handed, theatrical essay about the girls-only club I started in fourth or fifth grade and about the club’s tragic demise when I, the self-appointed president, stumbled upon my minions meeting in secret to make a unanimous decision to dethrone me. (I was, after all, a pigtailed tyrant.)
After the papers had been graded, the instructor called me to her desk at the end of the session. “This was excellent,” she said, “you got the highest grade in the class.” I beamed. “But I had to take off a point for a spelling error,” she said, raising her eyebrows and flipping to the offending page. I was astonished and crestfallen. “There,” she said, pointing to a sentence in a concluding paragraph. “You wrote, ‘O, the cruel injustice of mutiny!’ but it should be ‘Oh,’ with an H.” I blinked and nodded and took my paper.
But as soon as I got in the car, I raged audibly. Oh, with an H? Had this plebian never read any ode, any poem, any ancient drama?? Clearly, she didn’t get it; clearly, she had never read literature. My fury knew no bounds.
The fact that this story is still vivid to me today, some 11 years later, is damning. O, the tyranny of the perfectionist child. O, the lack of grace for the classically uninformed. O, the inability to let the most minute things go.
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.
Being 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.
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.
I was speaking with two senior editors yesterday about some book proofs we’d all been working on that had gone terribly awry, through no fault of our own. We were debating what to do, when, after proposing a course of action, my boss said, “But does that make me a control freak?”
“Of course it does!” The other said. “You have to be a control freak to be a decent editor.”
This made me start thinking: How much do our jobs have the potential to change our personalities? Our habits, our pet peeves? Or do we pick our jobs because they conform to our preexisting personalities?
For example, I think about my father, who is a computer engineer, and thus has a constant compulsion to innovate, to rewire, to upgrade. Or my uncle, who is the town fire chief and has a corresponding fixation with household safety. Or my mother, who is a teacher and has a deep focus on turning every moment into a “learning opportunity.”
Thinking in that vein, here are the habits and obsessions that being a copy editor has engendered in me:
A preternatural sense for finding punctuation errors in text. Sometimes I feel like I can sense them before I even read the paragraph.
Compulsive need for correctness in all things, especially factually and grammatically.
Googling like a BOSS.
Soul-level pain if I leave out a needed hyphen, apostrophe, comma, etc.
Need to tell everyone that “is” needs to be capitalized in titles.
Compulsion for mental and spatial organization.
Being obnoxious about little stuff.
Extreme timeliness, meeting deadlines way early.
A clean inbox. If I get more than eight unanswered e-mails in my inbox, I start to stress.
Excessive list-making. But you already knew that.
What about you? Has your job created any personality quirks in you? Or merely amplified the ones that you already had?