April 18, 2015

The Copyediting Mind

Yes, it's a grandiose post title, but that's how I'm feeling after reading Mary Norris's glorious "Holy Writ: Learning to Love the House Style" in the New Yorker. Norris has been copyediting for the New Yorker for many years now (though she writes it "copy editing") and just put out a book about her life called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

I've been a copyeditor for roughly twenty-five years now. Like all jobs, editing requires a thought process that becomes virtually invisible after a while. And like all jobs, it constitutes a microculture of its own, with its own tools of the trade (back in the day, colored pencils that each meant something specific: red for printer's errors, blue for editorial changes), specialized vocabulary, and stereotypical experiences. Most microcultures these days at least enjoy dedicated online forums, but it's rare to see one's world put front and center like Norris's book does for editing. John Leguizamo has said that Hispanics are starving to see themselves represented in culture (specifically movies and TV), and it's easy to imagine the joy audiences must feel when they watch an Ugly Betty or Jane the Virgin. Reading Norris's article feels like that to me: I thrill at every recondite detail—the dithering over the comma in "the thin, burgundy dress"; the authors whose talent doesn't match their eccentricity; the satisfaction of work for which a liberal arts education is actually useful and allows you to improve the underlying structure of a sentence while knowing that "Mies" is not the first name of a guy named "van der Rohe."

It doesn't hurt that Norris is a fabulous writer. In the last paragraph of her article, she likens reading and writing to driving a car: You can glory in the details of the engine, or you can just turn the ignition and go. But she drops in the phrase "join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts," which is a lovely reference to the famous poem "Naming of Parts," by Henry Reed. These kinds of pearls dot the whole article—language geek heaven.

No comments:

Post a Comment