Book review: The Subversive Copy Editor

by Frances Peck

Book review of The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller (The University of Chicago Press, 2009)

What does it take to get really good at the business of editing? I’d boil it down to four things: turn in great work, treat clients well, meet your deadlines, and maintain your perspective (code for: keep calm and carry on).

Turning in great work means knowing how to edit, which is the stuff of many editing books. The other three practices, because they go beyond pure skills, are in some ways harder to learn. Happily, they are explored with intelligence, warmth, and humour in Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor.

First published in 2009, this little book may already be on your bookshelf. If it isn’t, go get it. If it is, pick it up again. I’ve rocketed through it four times now, both for personal enrichment and teaching purposes, and each time I discover a tip or three that didn’t sink in before.

Saller, the editor of, and often voice behind, Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A, brings to her book years of experience and a large dollop of sanity. From automating mindless tasks (do you really want to tinker with endnotes one by one?) to navigating email to cooperating with prickly authors, she presents a slew of pointers for how to go about our business more quickly and more painlessly.

The word “flexibility” appears a lot in this book, a welcome reminder that the craft of editing, often seen as a rigid domain of right and wrong, benefits from a more relaxed touch. In her reassuring “been there, done that” voice, Saller reminds us that perfection is a phantasm, and chasing it is not only wearisome and stressful but distracting: in our fervid effort to insert (or delete) every serial comma, we might overlook a glaring problem of logic or grammar.

Another thing I love about this book is that Saller does more than suggest the best way to cope with, say, a delayed manuscript or a troublesome colleague. She often quotes effective (and not so effective) emails, queries, and conversations that she’s encountered during her career. This stuff is gold, and I confess I have cribbed from her lines on occasion.

A note on the title. First, don’t expect an account of guerrilla editing (for that, try The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson). “Subversive,” in Saller’s lexicon, means overturning two common assumptions: that the editor and writer are on opposing teams, and that editors must always follow the rules. Second, this book is not just for copy editors. Editors at all levels, freelance or in-house, at any stage of their career, will see their relationships, work habits, processes, and neuroses in these compulsively readable pages.

Want more Carol Fisher Saller? Check out The Subversive Copy Editor blog.

Frances Peck, a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, has been working with words for over 20 years.

Book cover image provided by Carol Fisher Saller.

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