The Compulsive Copyeditor

April 1, 2015

She Got a Fast Car

Filed under: metaphors,shop talk — amba12 @ 10:19 pm

“It’s like those mechanics that only work on cars that go 200 miles an hour,” said David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor . . .

. . . about the work of the magazine’s formidable last-line-of-defense copy editors, the O.K.’ers. I can relate. When told I needed to jazz up my resume, I dared to describe myself as “Porsche mechanic of the English language.”

The metaphor seems irresistible. When I left my first job in New York — an editing job — and launched myself into the unknown of freelance writing, I explained my choice by saying, “I don’t want to be in the grease pit, I want to be on the track.” Forty years of writing later, I was taking care of a sick mate and didn’t have the uninterrupted concentration necessary to write. I returned to the grease pit and discovered that the two jobs no longer seemed mutually exclusive. Rather, they enhanced each other. I’ll expand on how they enhance each other some other time. But one of the ways surely is the fun of writing about copyediting.

I particularly love that Mary Norris is an advanced enough copy editor to elevate her ear above the rules, scanning keenly for

technically correct commas that might make a sentence sound better if omitted . . .

The New Yorker is fond of commas. “We get a lot of letters from people who think we use too many commas,” Ms. Norris said. In the book she uses an example of what she calls “a discretionary comma” in the following sentence: “It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective.”

In such cases, “I always think: ‘The writer likes that comma. That comma is doing something,’ ” she said. “And sometimes I take it out, and sometimes I leave it in.”

Me too.

This level of savoir faire, of discrimination, of delectation, is delectable. To switch metaphors (I know, it’s a no-no), you have to have a palate for it.

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