Reading Like a Copy Editor

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I write poems and short stories for fun (except when it’s completely frustrating), but I copyedit the work of others for (a little) profit. Usually when I tell someone what I do for a living, the first question I get is, “What exactly does a copy editor do?” followed by, “how are you different than just, you know, a regular editor?”

My response is that I don’t help the author revise the rough drafts of the book, when characters, plot, and structure are still being formed and shaped. By the time I start working on a project, the editor has already done that, and the manuscript is (hopefully) in good shape. But it still needs a fine-tuning, and that’s where I come in. Not only do I check spelling and grammar, but I watch for consistency, logic, and flow: Wait, on page 3 she was “Catharine” but now on page 23 she’s “Catherine”—which one is it? Or, did this king really rule from 1350 to 1580? Ah, nope, that should be 1380. Better make a note to check that throughout. Looks like this author is really fond of the word “ambiguous”—this is the fourth time she’s used it in this chapter. I’ll suggest she use “unclear” here instead.

What kind of person makes a good copy editor? Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, offers his opinion in his new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style:

“Copyediting is a knack. It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and, hopefully and helpfully, the means to augment it…I do think it’s a craft whose knowledge can only be built on some mysterious predisposition. (The one thing I know that most copy editors have in common is that they were all early readers and spent much of their childhoods with their noses pressed into books.)”

Dreyer’s insightful description suggests how my copy editor and writer sides interact and, I hope, support one another. I’ve been focusing on writing poetry for the last year—and more than any other genre, poetry demands an attention to the sound of language in the ear, and the look and layout of language on the page. (Plus, I was definitely a young bookworm.)

But what do I not do when I copyedit? Well, I don’t scold authors for split infinitives. I don’t have a heart attack if a writer starts a sentence with the word “And.” My job is not to force a writer to align with unbreakable rules. It’s about supporting and strengthening the author’s own voice, through judicious application of grammatical guidelines and common sense.

Although, I’m with Mr. Dreyer on the serial (or Oxford) comma, when he notes that only “godless savages” do not use it.

George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.