An excerpt from

The Subversive Copy Editor

Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

Carol Fisher Saller


I hear you.

As the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s monthly Q&A, I’ve been reading your questions about writing style since the University of Chicago Press launched the Q&A in 1997. That amounts to tens of thousands of queries from students, professors, copy editors, businesspeople, and authors who struggle as they write and edit. As of this writing, the University of Chicago Press books Web site receives about a million and a half visits per month, and of those about 150,000 are to the Q&A. Fortunately for us, most of those visitors do not submit questions.

The Chicago Manual of Style, for the uninitiated, is one of the English-speaking world’s most revered style manuals. Although Chicago style may not have the most users, it surely has the most devoted. From its beginnings in the 1890s as a simple in-house sheet of proofreading tips for manuscript editors at the University of Chicago Press to its current CD-ROM, online, and print editions, it has grown into a bible for writers and editors in almost every kind of writing outside journalism (where Associated Press style and New York Times style dominate).

Written by the Manuscript Editing Department at the University of Chicago Press (where I work), the Manual of Style has chapters on everything from punctuation and capitalization to mathematics and foreign languages. Its chapters on “documentation” (the styling of notes and bibliographies) have been adopted by universities around the world. Users of CMOS include the most impossibly learned writers and editors as well as the most clueless, and for more than a decade the monthly Q&A has played host to them all.

Reading the questions that come through the site is a daily adventure away from editing tasks. We answer as many as we can, and I choose the best ones for the monthly posting. The range of topics can be startling. Here’s a note we received from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA:

Dear Chicago Manual of Style Q&A Person: What is the rule for sequencing adjectives in a series? For example, we know that numbers come before size indicators (e.g., six small apples). We also know that colors come after size indicators (e.g., six small yellow apples). The specific problem is whether to say “narrow anticyclonically dominated northwestern coast” or “anticyclonically dominated narrow northwestern coast.” (Please don’t say the correct answer is “anticyclonically dominated northwestern narrow coast”!)

And their kicker ending: “What is the rule that supports your answer?”

In contrast, another rather dreamy-sounding note read simply, “Dear CMOS, what is Chicago style? Could you give an example?” And one of my favorites: “Dear Chicago, Hello—my question is how can I find student apartments for the area of Northeastern Illinois University? I have checked, but I can’t seem to find apartments a full-time student could afford. Thanks so much.”

Questions come from all over the world, some from readers who struggle with English. Their grammar questions go deep and are beyond our ability to respond. (“Please tell differences of at and to.”) A professor wrote from Beijing to say that he was translating the Manual into Chinese because he perceived a need for it there. (I can hardly wait to see what kinds of questions we receive once CMOS is available in Chinese.)

Most of the messages I read, however, are basic questions about style. Often I know the answer, but sometimes I have to look it up—or I e-mail my fellow manuscript editors in the department for a quick consensus, or I run around and ask the first two or three colleagues I can find. Although people outside the Press address us “Dear style goddesses” and assume we are experts on everything in the Manual, most of the time I feel more like the pathetic little person behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. It’s only because I’m surrounded and protected by knowledgeable and generous coworkers that I can assemble the authoritative front that appears in the Q&A. When I get an esoteric question involving technical writing or linguistics, I phone or e-mail one of the professors on campus for help. If a question is clearly outside the purview of the CMOS help site, I sometimes do an Internet search and point the reader to a more relevant site.

For the most frequently asked questions, I keep template replies that I can personalize. I can’t count the number of times we’ve been asked whether to type one space or two at the end of a sentence (it’s one) or how to cite a TV commercial (this always worries me a little). And I keep the links to EtiquetteHell and Grammar Girl handy. The monthly Q&A that I cull from all these exchanges is always read by my managing editor and at least two other colleagues, who correct my grammar and punctuation and tactfully set me straight when something is wrong.

Some people write back to thank us, which can be more or less gratifying. (“I’m thrilled to receive wisdom from the horse’s mouth”; or “Thanks so much for the swift reply. I was a little disappointed at the lack of humor, though.”) I’m always tempted to respond briefly to these (“No problem—yours, Trigger”; or “Sorry—I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry”), but I rarely do, for fear of acquiring a few too many new best friends.

Two categories of questions seem to make up the bulk of the mail, and they’re the ones that inspired me to write this book. The first type comes from readers who want us to settle an argument. From these questions I hear a persistent cry of frustration:

  • I know I’m right about something. Could CMOS please confirm it?
  • I know I’m right about something. Could you please set my teacher/student/author/colleague/boss/editor straight?
  • I know I’m right about something. Could you please save the English-speaking world from its slide into illiteracy?

The second main category of questions comes from writers or editors who are struggling to finish a project and have hit a wall:

  • My deadline was yesterday, so please hurry with your reply.
  • I’ve finished the editing, and here is a list of all the things I haven’t figured out yet. Could you help?
  • How would you edit this bibliography? (Just do the first ten—I can take it from there.)

This book is for all of you: those students, professors, copy editors, businesspeople, and writers who are sometimes dogged by indecision or confusion over rules of style and grammar; for those of you who know the rules but agonize over when or whether to apply them; for those who copyedit for a living and those who don’t and those who would like to. In the following pages, I hope to soothe and encourage and lend power. I am not going to do this, however, by setting your teacher/student/author/colleague/boss/editor straight. And I’m not going to help with your homework. You won’t learn the fundamentals of copyediting from me. Rather, consider this a “relationship” book, because I’m going to talk about the main relationships in your work life—with the writer, with your colleagues, and with yourself—in ways that you might not have considered before. Ways that might be called subversive.

Right away I should explain what I do not mean by a “subversive copy editor,” in case anyone has in mind a character like the one my colleague Joe Weintraub once described in a prize-winning short story. In the story, a snooty language expert named Ezra Peckinpah has been tormented for months by a copy editor who purposely inserts errors into his column at the final stage before printing. In this scene, Ezra has just received the latest issue:

He held the issue up to the light as if he were inspecting the texture of the paper itself for flaws, and when he found himself beginning the final paragraph with the ungrammatical apostrophe “Just between you, dear reader, and I …” his arms twitched outward, his elbow striking his reading lamp so that it tottered on its base and almost toppled to the floor.

“Galleys!” he screamed into the telephone. “I demand to see galleys!”

No—at the risk of disappointing my more twisted readers, let me clarify up front that my subversive copy editor is an entirely different creature.

Subversive, first, because this editor overthrows the popular view that the writer is a natural adversary, competing for power over the prose. In part 1 of this book, I will lay out an alternate view and suggest what I believe to be the most productive order of an editor’s loyalties, an order that puts the writer closer to the top of the list and (don’t tell my boss) the publishing house closer to the bottom, as they work together in the service of the reader.

Subversive, second, because to live a good life as a copy editor, this editor must occasionally think outside the rules. To copyedit is to confront and solve an endless series of problems, great and small. In part 2 of the book, in examining the copy editor’s life of conflict, I will zero in on some of the ways we create problems for ourselves even when our writers are expert, thorough, and compliant. You will see how a need to always cleave to the rules can be counterproductive. I will seek to banish the pet compulsions, inflexibilities, and superstitions that get in our way. More than once in these pages, you will read the heretical idea “It’s not a matter of being correct or incorrect. It’s only a style.”

In explaining this theme to my son John, I said I wanted to find ways for all parties to get what they want, sometimes by breaking the rules, and John asked, “Oh—like shoplifting?” Well, no. The idea isn’t to allow bad grammar and sloppy attribution of sources. The idea of a good author-editor relationship involves working with the writer in ways that will tell you what he really wants so you can help him achieve it. A great deal of the time, you’ll find that what the writer wants, you want, too. And if you’re skilled, the writer will discover that he wants most of the same things you do. The second idea, of having a good relationship with our colleagues and ourselves as copy editors, involves forming work habits and attitudes that allow us to complete our tasks having done the best we can do with the material we were given, without sacrificing more than a little bit of our standards, our sanity, or our sleep.

And who knows? If we’re lucky, in the course of figuring out some strategies for getting along with our authors, our bosses, our colleagues, and ourselves, we might also happen to learn something more about getting along in life.


I am a working manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, which publishes scholarly books in a wide variety of disciplines. My work keeps me in daily contact with people in acquisitions, design, production, and marketing as we go through the mechanics of making books. Although there are fourteen full-time manuscript editors on staff, we aren’t enough to handle all the books, so we use freelance copy editors as well. Almost all of the editing is done electronically, and although my colleagues and I share tips and tricks, at Chicago there’s no rigid standard operating procedure for the preparation of disks or for the copyediting of books. This gives us an autonomy that we all prize; in this book I will try to keep in mind that not all copy editors are working on books; you aren’t all working in-house; you don’t all have the same flexibility to balk at rules. I devote one chapter to the special concerns of freelancers.

In the Manuscript Editing Department at Chicago, although most of us have higher degrees, we don’t tend to specialize in particular subjects. Manuscripts are usually assigned on the basis of scheduling and availability. Over the years, I’ve landed a three-volume work on the vertebrate skull, a book of Jewish jokes, and a seven-hundred-page bibliography of historical geography. Literary criticism, art history, ethnomusicology, gay and lesbian studies—we edit everything except math and the hard sciences, which we send to specialist freelancers. (I once supervised a freelancer who read Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetime and Black Hole Thermodynamics, a book I kept on my shelf for years to impress visitors.)

Although the bulk of my experience has been in the editing of scholarly book manuscripts, I have also worked in trade publishing and journalism, and indeed long ago as a secretary, a clerk/typist, in data entry, and (just for the record) as a letter carrier. In all of those jobs, I was responsible for writing or editing—or carrying—written copy. All this is only to say that I’ve edited a lot of words and learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share, because you are asking.

In our mail, we tend to hear from the frustrated, the panicked, the disaffected. But I like to believe that when we’re not hearing from you, it’s because you’re doing just fine, enjoying the pleasures of working at your craft. Knowing how to tinker with a broken piece of prose until it hums is a source of contentment known by all who have mastered a worthy craft. The midwife works with a laboring woman to produce a healthy child. A seamstress or tailor finishes the couturier’s garment until it’s a perfect, flattering fit. Carpenters and masons execute an architect’s vision and take pride in a safe and well-functioning building. What we all have in common is our wish to cooperate—not compete—with the originators of our material, and we share a satisfaction and sense of accomplishment when everything is going well.

Ultimately, I’m hopeful that a reexamination of your role as copy editor can benefit all parties while liberating you from the oppression of unhelpful habits and attitudes. My point is not how to copyedit, but how to survive while doing it. My hope is to give you some self-assurance and a measure of grace as you go about negotiating one word at a time with the writers you are charged with saving from themselves.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages ix–xvi of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) by Carol Fisher Saller, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Carol Fisher Saller
The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)
©2009, 148 pages
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 9780226734248
Paper $13.00 ISBN: 9780226734255

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Subversive Copy Editor.

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