B: I recently heard a good copyeditor reads constantly (source: the Society for Editing). The same is probably true about writers, but I won’t delve into the virtues of an always-reading-writer here, only those of the always-reading-copyeditor.
J: As part advertisement and part self-improvement, we will be posting brief notes about the books we’re reading. More reflection than review, these posts—these are our intentions, at least—will praise turns-of-phrase and structural beauties, extol the virtues of well-placed paragraphs, and maybe occasionally proffer critiques.
B: Allow me to justify our motives.
I take reading to contribute to copyediting in three ways:
(1) reading broadens the background of knowledge by which a copyeditor corroborates facts or calls out unsubstantiated claims;
(2) it allows the attentive reader to internalize a style guide’s rules by observing them in context (for example, whether a guide prescribes the Oxford comma and when it specifies numbers should be written out, not given as numerals);
(3) it serves as practice for the copyeditor to refine their* “eagle eye”—a metaphor turned nauseating cliché—for mistakes.
For the sake of (1) and (2), presumably, the best copyeditor constantly reads works related to their specialization, whether fiction, journalism, or academics, (one doesn’t learn more about journalists’ Associated Press style by reading academic articles, usually written in APA, for example). Academic articles in the humanities and social sciences are my own copyediting specialty. Because I constantly read philosophical articles for my degree, I’m continually (1) broadening the background by which I identify unsubstantiated claims and even subtle fallacies, and (2) internalizing writers’ best practices. For example, when I read an exceptionally clear argument, I reflect on what contributes to its clarity and how I might implement the same practices in my own writing (and, as relevant, recommend those practices to the authors whose works I edit).
Whereas works related to one’s chosen field contribute to (1) and (2), all reading contributes to (3), so I’ll use this to justify my reading novels (and even menus and notoriously unclear advertisements) as contributions to my copyediting. Reclining with a novel is refreshing—an indulgence I probably can’t afford time-wise but must afford sanity-wise—after parsing the intricacies of philosophical articles. But it is nonetheless leisurely practicing what I can’t help but do while reading anything—visually “trip” over typos, misuse of the subjunctive mood, or an extra—or worse: missing!—space between words, for example. Admittedly, this tripping hinders my reading at times—it distracts me from the author’s meaning. After all, who should be worried about an extra space in the grand scheme of things? It’s certainly irrelevant to an enjoyable narrative or strong argument. But doesn’t this just exemplify the need for a good copyeditor? If such errors hinder my reading, will similar errors (and, heaven forbid, larger errors like structural inconsistencies) not hinder others’? Clearly they will, and this is unfortunate for the author who’s spent countless hours perfecting their manuscript. Because it’s a copyeditor’s job to facilitate—to act as a liaison for—the author’s meaning, to ensure its transfer from author to reader, a copyeditor will catch and correct these obstacles.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, doesn’t need (3) to justify his reading quality literature. His BA in English and interdisciplinary bent make diversity central to his reading. Academic texts are relevant to his field, of course, but he can also read the latest Pulitzer-prize-winning publications and politically relevant New York Times articles for the sake of reasons (1) and (2). Because of this, the expanding breadth of his political, environmental, and theoretical background, quite frankly, exhausts me, though he regularly uses it to be conscious of claims and unspoken narratives underlying grander claims about humanistic themes. I’m waxing poetic here because this is how his expertise strikes me—poetic and too interdisciplinarily** involved for my understanding, which is routinely restricted to the concrete, analytical realm.
J: Why should an editor read well and often? Whether circular or banal, the answer seems so obvious as to be meaningless—reading constitutes the job, after all. But unfortunately, though all editors read, not all read avidly, and in my opinion, an experienced editor is necessarily an experienced reader. I could talk more about what makes an “experienced” or “good” or “avid” reader, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.
To read is to collect information. For some, the words in print or on screen move through the mind like water through a net: little, if anything, is caught, maybe the loose seaweed of afterthought. (I’m a vegetarian and thus uncomfortable with the direction of this analogy, so let’s not linger.)
We cannot fault a net for having holes, but we could blame the editor, writer, or reader if the words do not catch. We could blame them all separately or collectively, depending. Roland Barthes, famously, said the author must die for the reader to emerge, but then, I ask, why do readers spend so much time getting at authorial intent? And an editor should ease the reader’s retention on the writer’s behalf, but the editor is not the writer—editorial dependence is usually a sign of a writer’s negligence.
I could call these three members the textual triumvirate, each creating meaning through a delightful, albeit frustrating, interplay. Similar to a democracy, failure of any part causes the others to falter.
B: My next post will be on Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, but if I don’t post it until the middle of May, you’ll know I’ve been caught in the end-of-semester current.
J: I’ve finally gotten around to reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, for which she won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize, so I’ll reflect on this next time.
*The Associated Press now allows singular ‘their’ —a breakthrough for those of us otherwise exhausted by constantly revising singular ‘their’ to ‘his or her’ for the sake of gender neutrality—so I’m using that here with a clear conscience.
**As a philosopher (and admirer of David Foster Wallace’s coinages), I reserve the right to coin words and phrases to more precisely suit my meaning, because precision is everything in philosophy. Jeremiah will no doubt censure my usage here and elsewhere, so rest assured there’s a balance between our tastes. Moreover, I don’t recommend coinages in others’ writings (read: I’m trying to assuage any worries you might have that that’s how I copyedit).