Book review: _The Subversive Copy Editor_

I just finished reading The Subversive Copy Editor, a book about copyediting by Carol Fisher Saller, one of the people who answer questions for the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A page. (Or at least she was in 2016 when this edition of this book came out.) I’m not a regular reader of their Q&A, but when I’ve read it I’ve generally found it thoughtful and interesting. And I generally like the approach to style that Chicago takes.

But unfortunately, I went into this book with the wrong expectations; because of the word subversive in the title, I assumed it was going to focus on how to handle political issues in copyediting. Turns out that not only is it not about that, the author several times uses phrases that I consider politically unfortunate. (One example among many: the phrase tarted-up.)

She also quotes questions and answers from the Chicago Q&A, but many of the answers are kind of snarky and feel mildly obnoxious to me, which feels to me at odds with the core of the book.

The main point of the book is described in its subtitle: “(or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself).” In the introduction, Saller clarifies that what she means by “subversive” is recommendations like:

  • Have a friendly relationship with your writers, not an adversarial one.
  • Occasionally think outside the rules; be flexible.
  • Help writers achieve what they want to do.

…Whereas to me (and, I think, every other editor I’ve talked or worked with), those things are completely ordinary and not at all subversive.

So the book ended up feeling to me mostly like an introduction to good copyediting practices for new editors, and perhaps especially for people who are new to office work of any kind. I think it’s probably a pretty good introduction for such people, but there wasn’t a lot in the book that I didn’t already know.

I was particularly surprised by the presence of a chapter focusing on things like keeping a to-do list and having a schedule and prioritizing more important work. Those are things that I’m not good at, so in theory that material could have been useful to me; but it felt to me more like general advice about managing any kind of office-job workload than like something specific to copyediting.

I also felt like there were some odd mismatches between some aspects of the book and others. For example, although much of the book feels to me like it’s intended for beginners, Saller occasionally says things like ~“We’ve all had the experience of [such-and-such thing going wrong in an office job]”~ (paraphrase from memory, not exact quote), which seems to me to imply that it’s not for beginners.

Another example: Much of the book is about the importance of maintaining a good and friendly relationship with your writers and your editorial colleagues. But Saller includes Q&A responses that say things like “In short, your sentence is a disaster and must be rewritten for clarity.” That kind of statement absolutely does not “lay the groundwork for an excellent author-editor relationship,” which is what Saller says to do in the paragraph before she quotes that Q&A response.

There are definitely things I like about this book; I mostly agree with her overall ideas and the approach she’s advocating. And the book is pretty readable, and a fairly quick read.

But I would say it’s not primarily intended for experienced editors. And I would say that even new editors should take some aspects of it with a grain of salt.

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