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Autumn Forest

BOOK REVIEW: The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller

Updated: Mar 23, 2023


Copy editors. Aren’t they pinched-nosed mousy types with bifocals and buttoned-up blouses? Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor (University of Chicago Press, 2009), thinks not.

A senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, Saller is the voice behind the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. She wrote The Subversive Copy Editor in response to two kinds of questions that make up the bulk of her mail: queries seeking confirmation that “I’m right” about something, and cries for help from writers and editors who have “hit a wall.” The first edition, a slim volume at 134 pages, was so popular that a second edition came out in 2016. Slightly longer at 186 pages, this book is a must-read for copy editorsand authors who are curious, and perhaps nervous, about "being copy edited."

Saller establishes right away that her book is not a primer on the fundamentals of copy editing, but rather a handbook on relationships: "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."

When I consider my work as a copy editor of scholarly books, subversive is not an adjective that springs to mind. Careful, correct, and cautious more accurately describe my experience. But Saller argues that good copy editors are subversive on two fronts: First, they owe their loyalty not to their boss or even to the author, but to the reader. Second, they know when to break the rules. A "subversive" copy editor assumes a collaborative relationship with the author, not an adversarial one. To develop rapport with an author, Saller recommends carefulness, transparency, and flexibility.

Carefulness: Do no harm. Transparency: Don’t sneak in changes. Flexibility: Don’t fight over commas!

Saller serves up her editing philosophy with a spoonful of humour. Here is a taste:

"I know from reading the Q&A mail over the years that when it comes to our editing decisions, it can be very, very difficult to be “flexible”… When we know a rule and have taken pains to impose it consistently through a document only to meet with the writer’s resistance, our instinct is to go down fighting. It’s a matter of honor. Of professional pride. And maybe even, just a little bit, of power. “My author insists on…” is one of the most frequent openers to Q&A… The very wording tells me that you are locked in a battle of wills. And by god, we have our standards. "​—Carol Fisher Saller

If you're a copy editor, you'll feel that Saller is speaking directly to you. It’s such a relief to know that someone else knows and cares about the countless decisions, and indecisions, that make up a day-in-the-life. Q / What could possibly be subversive about copy editors? ​A / If you don’t know by now, you’ll just have to read the book!

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