…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

comma queen

I am the greatest copy editor in all the land! Or at least I was late last week, when a self-esteem boost arrived on the wings of a best-selling author—and just in time to thumb its nose at my sickening fears of brain atrophy.

I was given a book excerpt to copyedit, see, and typically excerpts are the easiest and therefore most boring lumps of text copy editors encounter. They’re generally perfect, since they’ve already been thoroughly copyedited by the authors, their editors, and their editors’ copy editors. Besides which, even if an excerpt is a flaming turd we’re not to change a thing, being that said turd is the property of the author and his or her publishing house. Speaking of flaming turds, I used to edit a regular column by a celebrity who is very much not a writer despite the fact that she has published a book. Her writing was juvenile, clumsy, and even nonsensical at times, but I was never to touch a word without written permission. The one time I bothered to ask to change something—because I really was trying to save her from exposing herself as an idiot—I was denied permission, in writing. Such was the unflinching perfection of her word vomit.

So my instruction with this excerpt was to compare our file to their file and ensure that we were publishing the work exactly as it would appear in the book, which really only entails making certain that all the formatting carried over from one file to the next: italics, smart quotes, blah, blah, blah. There are few tortures crueler than handing a copy editor a piece of writing and telling her not to edit it. Control-freaky inclinations and obsessive-compulsive tics are not just tolerated but cultivated in our line of work, and it’s tough to turn those filters off.

Happily, the text was worth reading. It was a chapter from a forthcoming book by the aforementioned best-selling firebrand author. I had read his previous books, and will likely be reading the new one when I get my hands on a review copy or, barring such luck, when it’s published. So I approached the assignment not so much as an exercise in futility but as an honest-to-god instance of getting paid to read. That’s the fantasy, after all—that copy editors are paid to do what they love: poring over all those wonderful words. But we don’t get to choose what we edit, and reading isn’t nearly as pleasurable when scrutinizing the kinds of insane details that are our livelihood: Is that period italicized?

Here we reach a narrative crisis in my triumphant story: The number of people in the world who are interested in reading a blow-by-blow account of an act of copyediting, however life-affirming, is small. That’s why there aren’t procedural TV dramas offering viewers a window on our world: the workaday trials and tribulations of a woman—with a tragic past, natch—dispensing righteous truth through the nib of her pen, correcting the punctuation and grammar of an ungrateful nation that will continue to make the same mistakes week after week, season after season.

Suffice to say that there was some punctuation in the celebrated author's chapter that struck me as…eccentric, paired with a couple of mistakes—explicit no-two-ways-about-’em mistakes—such that I ditched my pussyfoot instructions and contacted the big-deal publishing house directly, cc’ing the folks who had admonished me to resist my copyediting urges. I outlined the mistakes—both explicit and debatable—in a humble e-mail wherein I was careful to use language that left me completely open to the idea that the instances cited may simply be idiosyncrasies of the author, the kind of poetic license we might extend to a writer whose breakthrough novel spent 70 consecutive weeks on the New York Times best seller list. If my e-mail program had allowed me to dot my i’s with hearts and flowers, I might have.

You know where this is going, yeah? I mean, wouldn’t this be a crap story if the publisher had responded with a curt “please keep all punctuation and grammar intact”? Yes. Which is why it’s my relief to report that said big-deal publishing house replied asking that I make all changes cited, thanking me for catching the errors, and noting that they would alert their production department. Ha! The book was on its way to production when I swooped in like a copyediting superhero and saved it from everlasting embarrassment. Or at least I saved that chapter. Hey, shouldn’t they ask me to proofread the rest of the book? And then shouldn’t I be lovingly thanked in the acknowledgements?

I don’t blame the copy editors at the big-deal publishing house for missing what they did. I’ve edited books too. They’re difficult, unwieldy, and the deadlines are often insane. The best-selling author probably turned in his manuscript late, then his editor almost certainly took more than the time allotted to line-edit, and it was likely passed on to the copy editor with a demand for a one-week turnaround. And while everyone else’s deadline was squishy, the copy editor’s deadline was firm, because production and advertising were already lined up for an on-sale date that couldn’t be moved.

Copy editors may be the unsung heroes of publishing, but I have to sing my praises this time, if only to a small audience. My brain’s integrity has been in doubt this past year, and it still seems slow and laborious to me, like I’m constantly operating under the influence. And then there’s that neuropsychologist who pronounced my brain sound but said my processing speed was in the borderline-impaired range. That kind of stuff can screw with a girl’s head, especially when that head is already suspect.

So I’ve been terrified off and on that it's just a matter of time before I won’t be able to do this job anymore, and the terror alert last week was orange. I went to dinner with a friend Tuesday night, where we talked about our mutual career anxieties, each able to reassure the other but not ourselves. And Wednesday’s therapy session was all about how I had finally found a job I loved and here was my brain checking out on me. My therapist, of course, saw things differently, noting that if I had received no complaints about my work I was probably doing an OK job. But she gets paid to say that, and she lives in a head where people aren’t constantly talking behind her back.

At any rate, this particular copyediting assignment seemed suspiciously well timed. Were I a woman inclined to believe in a higher power, I might think she’s trying to tell me something. Then again, if I were to believe in this higher-power business, I’d want to know why I’m saddled with a brain that doubts its own integrity. Then there’d be a whole lot of talk about faith and mysterious workings and the like, so it’s probably better if I just choose to believe that everything is random, and I most of all.

Still, I am the greatest copy editor in all the land. This week. Next week the neuroses will surely come rushing back, so somebody needs to line up another mistake-riddled excerpt from a best-selling author soon.


Blogger treecup said...

I admire your abilities quite a bit -- I think of you often when I am correcting a stack of student papers and don't know how to go about showing them how to fix what is wrong because I only know that it is wrong but not precisely why.

8:00 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

I'm not saying this because you're my H... you're the best editor I know and there's nuffin wrong with your brain.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous jkt said...

you go, girl! that's an awesome story! i love how you emailed them and let them know what you found. that took guts and maturity, and confidence too. i admire that, oh-holy-copy-editing one! i have no doubt you are great at your job.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous ani said...

Woo-hoo! You go, girl!

I like attributing such things to a Higher Power, while also not assuming negative things necessarily have the same source. (Then again, there are wisdom tales from a couple of different religions which essentially ask us to consider how well we can truly know what is a good event and what is a bad event.)

11:37 PM  
Blogger alice, uptown said...

Would you like a serial (aka Harvard) comma with that? Do you prefer an upper or lower case letter to follow a semi-, if it preceeds a full sentence?

Finally, so long as your check doesn't bounce, if you want to put commas in your hair, go for it. Why should we queens of grammar have all the fun?


a former copy editor (2 wds)

7:12 AM  
Blogger bryduck said...

Spill it--who's the author? Ok, that might have to wait for your memoirs . . .

12:27 PM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

My brain is so not working. I'm reading you are trying to edit a flaming turd (?).

12:52 PM  

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