The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 18, 2010

The Thrill of Anonymity

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 1:43 pm

When I began working again as a copy editor, it was on a freelance basis, and I was simply — and for all I knew, temporarily — one of several taking turns filling the shoes of a long-timer who’d quit to go back to grad school in her 50s.  So when I was addressed as “Copy” in footnote conferences, it made sense:  the role was being addressed, regardless of who was in it.

But the job and I were such a good fit that within a few months I was “Copy Chief,” on the masthead, and handling nearly all the copy editing and fact checking.  To distinguish between the two roles (which are quite distinct, and cannot be done well simultaneously — when focusing on one, you’ll miss cues on the other), I continued to label my footnotes either “FC” or “CE” (or occasionally “FC/CE”).  Very rarely do I “come out” as myself, AG, and “break the frame,” as actors say when they step out of character and address the audience or camera directly.  The editors, of course, know perfectly well who I am, and they’ll sometimes address me by name in the footnotes.  (They use their personal initials to label theirs, which is useful because each is in charge of specific articles.)  But out of habit and a kind of guild tradition, they often still address me as “Copy” — and it never fails to give me a small thrill.

Why is this?  In our individualistic, attention-craving age, it seems almost masochistic. Well, let’s see.

When I began working with this crew, I took great pleasure in having colleagues again (writing is lonely work, editing much less so), and in the shop-floor talk of the ancient and honorable editing guild, which dates back at least to Gutenberg.  Editing is not the elite occupation you might think; it’s much more like being an auto mechanic.  The nuts and bolts and parts of language are dismantled and handled with an unsentimental focus on their eventual smooth functioning.  Much more than a writer, who (I should know) is often tempted to show off, you want your work not to show.  So there’s a funny blue-collar feel about the editing give-and-take that is very refreshing.  It feels like “real” work, with hands and tools, almost as material and hand-dirtying as typesetting.  (I wonder if the same people used to do both.)

Copy editing in particular is a supremely self-effacing job, and there is a satisfaction in vanishing into the role that feels ancient.  I can only explain by lapsing into medieval craft-guild analogies.

I naturally overstep the bounds of the role at times, straying into the more subjective and qualitative province of line editing.  I’m good at this, but it’s not my job, and thank God — I don’t want the responsibility, just now.  I took real pains to reassure my colleagues that I have zero attachment to my suggestions.  I won’t hold them back in case they might be deemed useful, but I will not get my nose out of joint if they’re not.  The result is that sometimes my fixes are accepted (rather than resented).  When they are, I feel a secret satisfaction in fellowship with one of the anonymous stoneworkers on Chartres Cathedral, looking up and being the only one ever to know, “I carved the left nostril on that gargoyle!”  And put a little extra flair into the flare.

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2 Comments »

  1. > a funny blue-color feel

    Reminds me of seeing mention of “white-color employees” in articles on employment discrimination.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — April 6, 2010 @ 11:55 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for pointing that out — I meant “blue-collar”! Sheesh! (Fixed.)

      Comment by amba12 — April 7, 2010 @ 12:05 am | Reply


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