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The Technical Stylist Reviews

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

For several years, I taught technical editing (among other courses) at the University of Washington. If I were still teaching that course, I would include this book as required reading. Although almost all textbooks on technical editing cover the weighty matter of the writer-editor relationship, Saller does a particularly nice job of conveying the subtleties and the myriad ways such relationships can go wrong. Or right. Saller goes so far as to say “Consider this a relationship book.” At the same time, she has produced a polished, yet conversational essay on the art and science of editing.

I believe her success with this book has a lot to do with an unusually mature prose style—not the sort of the thing you see much of in textbooks. At least you don’t see it in most of the textbooks I’ve read. She also focuses on the style of intellection required for editors: “To copyedit is to confront and solve an endless series of problems, great and small.”

Saller is also good at giving very specific, striking examples, including regrettable moments in her own career. One of these includes her blithely complaining to her new boss that she couldn’t work with a certain person and even saying “Either Mrs. R. goes or I go!” These are excellent object lessons for fledgling editors.

Another audience well served by Saller is writers—see the chapter entitled “Dear Writers: A Chapter of Your Own.” She is at pains to clarify that the writer/editor relationship should not be considered adversarial. Here’s a sampling of her advice to writers who think editing is a mechanical, straightforward process:
  • Just as Heraclitus observed that you can’t step in the same river twice, Saller observes that “a manuscript will never be edited in the same way twice, and it never will be considered perfect, no matter how many times it’s edited.” Understanding why this is the case is part of growing mature in the profession.
  • When you submit a manuscript “be prepared for someone to find something that needs changing.”
  • Don’t expect your editor to be a mind reader.
  • Don’t “explode in anger” at what you consider incompetent editing. Explain and discuss with the editor—and NEVER “explode in anger” about your editor to the editor’s superiors.
Saller uses a tidy and appealing Q&A device to frame her chapters. At the beginning of each chapter, she includes a question, often provocative, that was received by the Chicago Manual staff. At the end of the chapter, you get the answer. Almost always the answer is along the lines of “it depends.” And almost always the key to knowing the answer is significant experience in the field and knowledge of the literature.

But while I believe this is a useful text if you’re an inexperienced editor or a writer unfamiliar with the editing process, this book doesn’t offer much new for the experienced editor. To Saller, the “subversive” part has to do with demonstrating that the rules aren’t the answer. To me, what she’s calling subversion, I call mastery. The literature on skill mastery has long shown that masters of a given discipline know enough to think “outside the box.” It’s only when you’re an apprentice that you think the rule book should cover every question.

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