Book Review: The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller

Posted 9 October, 2017 by Alicia in Book Review / 0 Comments  


Each year writers and editors submit over three thousand grammar and style questions to the Q&A page at The Chicago Manual of Style Online. Some are arcane, some simply hilarious—and one editor, Carol Fisher Saller, reads every single one of them. All too often she notes a classic author-editor standoff, wherein both parties refuse to compromise on the “rights” and “wrongs” of prose styling: “This author is giving me a fit.” “I wish that I could just DEMAND the use of the serial comma at all times.” “My author wants his preface to come at the end of the book. This just seems ridiculous to me. I mean, it’s not a post-face.”

In The Subversive Copy Editor, Saller casts aside this adversarial view and suggests new strategies for keeping the peace. Emphasizing habits of carefulness, transparency, and flexibility, she shows copy editors how to build an environment of trust and cooperation. One chapter takes on the difficult author; another speaks to writers themselves. Throughout, the focus is on serving the reader, even if it means breaking “rules” along the way. Saller’s own foibles and misadventures provide ample material: “I mess up all the time,” she confesses. “It’s how I know things.”

Writers, Saller acknowledges, are only half the challenge, as copy editors can also make trouble for themselves. (Does any other book have an index entry that says “terrorists. See copy editors”?) The book includes helpful sections on e-mail etiquette, work-flow management, prioritizing, and organizing computer files. One chapter even addresses the special concerns of freelance editors.

Saller’s emphasis on negotiation and flexibility will surprise many copy editors who have absorbed, along with the dos and don’ts of their stylebooks, an attitude that their way is the right way. In encouraging copy editors to banish their ignorance and disorganization, insecurities and compulsions, the Chicago Q&A presents itself as a kind of alter ego to the comparatively staid Manual of Style. In The Subversive Copy Editor, Saller continues her mission with audacity and good humor.

my review

I absolutely love this book. When I say that the Chicago  Manual of Style is the editor’s bible—and many agree with me—then it follows that Carol Fisher Saller is the editing god (or guru). She has experience and knowledge of the rules (used very loosely) on her side, but she is just so approachable. She writes as if she is speaking directly to you. This book is filled with anecdotes, good and bad, amusing and cringe-worthy, helpful and simply entertaining. It makes it such a pleasant read, even as I jot down copious notes. (Six pages of them, in fact. To be fair, I skimmed it after finishing so I could take notes the second go-round. I didn’t want to detract from the reading experience the first time.)

Saller covers all aspects of the copyediting business (whether in-house or freelance), from tools of the trade to fostering good business relationships. Her book certainly serves as a catch-all, while still leaving me with questions to research further. (In fact, this snowballed into a huge still-ongoing research project, causing me to read new books, join new websites, and even create a new website for myself. This one right here!) It walks you through a number of different problems that could crop up, whether with the text itself, the process, or the people you work with (including the author). There are questions to ask, steps to follow, and backup plans. It’s very thorough, even though I’m not sure how often I would remember to consult these steps when coming across the problems in real life. I might benefit if I shorten them to a mantra (or several) and leave them around the house. I tend to remember only things that I have written down somewhere. But if you can drill the concepts into your thought process, you will have gained a huge advantage. This book is a wealth of wisdom, straight from Saller herself. I can’t recommend it enough.

I have also read the second edition of this book and find the new material just as helpful. There are two new chapters and some sections added to other chapters. There are also a few added sentences here and there which enhance the original version. A lot of the new information is about newer technological practices, which were touched on in the first edition but are explained more fully here. I did know a lot of the new material, and the new resources she added in the “Further Reading” section, but that’s only because I extensively browsed the sources in the first edition. They led me to discover tons more resources, nearly all of which are the new material in this edition’s resources. So I didn’t find too much more to research from the second edition, although she added a bunch of bulleted lists that will be useful in my project of designing a freelancing website. I would say it is best to have both versions of this book on hand, because not only is new stuff added in the second one, but a lot of stuff is changed as well and both versions are important.

This review was originally posted on my book blog. You can find the book on Goodreads and Amazon.



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