The Technical Stylist ReviewsThe 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 â€œConsider this a relationship book.â€ 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 styleâ€”not the sort of the thing you see much of in textbooks. At least you donâ€™t see it in most of the textbooks Iâ€™ve read. She also focuses on the style of intellection required for editors: â€œTo copyedit is to confront and solve an endless series of problems, great and small.â€
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 couldnâ€™t work with a certain person and even saying â€œEither Mrs. R. goes or I go!â€ These are excellent object lessons for fledgling editors.
Another audience well served by Saller is writersâ€”see the chapter entitled â€œDear Writers: A Chapter of Your Own.â€ She is at pains to clarify that the writer/editor relationship should not be considered adversarial. Hereâ€™s a sampling of her advice to writers who think editing is a mechanical, straightforward process:
- Just as Heraclitus observed that you canâ€™t step in the same river twice, Saller observes that â€œa manuscript will never be edited in the same way twice, and it never will be considered perfect, no matter how many times itâ€™s edited.â€ Understanding why this is the case is part of growing mature in the profession.
- When you submit a manuscript â€œbe prepared for someone to find something that needs changing.â€
- Donâ€™t expect your editor to be a mind reader.
- Donâ€™t â€œexplode in angerâ€ at what you consider incompetent editing. Explain and discuss with the editorâ€”and NEVER â€œexplode in angerâ€ about your editor to the editorâ€™s superiors.
But while I believe this is a useful text if youâ€™re an inexperienced editor or a writer unfamiliar with the editing process, this book doesnâ€™t offer much new for the experienced editor. To Saller, the â€œsubversiveâ€ part has to do with demonstrating that the rules arenâ€™t the answer. To me, what sheâ€™s calling subversion, I call mastery. The literature on skill mastery has long shown that masters of a given discipline know enough to think â€œoutside the box.â€ Itâ€™s only when youâ€™re an apprentice that you think the rule book should cover every question.