Though my first instinct is to tell her to cut it by 10 percent, this essay by former New York magazine copy editor Lori Fradkin really is spot-on in its portrayal of what it’s like to be a steward of grammar, usage and style. Though I’d much rather chat about my writing under the auspices of this blog, the truth is that I spend 40 hours of my week, and sometimes more, as a professional copy editor. While not thankless, it’s also not glamorous (Drew Barrymore movies notwithstanding), and if nothing else, Fradkin has done a service by letting prospective copy editors know what it’s like on the inside. You can’t say you weren’t warned.
I’m a bit envious that Fradkin has actually had style debates about whether douche bag is one word or two; I’d find that a refreshing change from the ones that tend to engulf newspaper copy desks (hyphens and Associated Press style, mostly — with the former increasingly eschewed, to sometimes comical results, and the latter woefully lacking in logic and unevenly applied by, of all outfits, the Associated Press).
I’ve been at this gig nearly 20 years, and I can tell you that something happens to a copy editor as he ages. I spent my 20s willing to prepare the battlements over minutiae (the aforementioned hyphens), my 30s fixated much more on line editing than on the finer points and now, at the dawn of my 40s, I’m willing to give a lot of leeway to style but can turn absolutely murderous over slack, hackneyed writing (and good golly is there more of it than ever).
Since launching my side career as a novelist, I’ve found that exercising both sets of muscles — the ones that create and the ones that refine — has made me much better at both jobs. I know what it’s like to shape every word, sentence and paragraph, and how devastating it can be when someone rips that structure apart, even if it’s for the better. I also know how to be ruthless on matters of quality control, in my own writing and in others’. We owe it to the people who read our work to give them the best we have. Half-assing it just won’t do.
(The hyphen was a must.)