Review: The Subversive Copy Editor

The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago by Carol Fisher Saller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book when I was first really starting But I am very well aware that not everyone is as privileged to be taught that fundamentals of editing from experienced professionals who also happen to be professors, as I was. (Shout-out to Maggie and Jake at Mizzou!) For you, I say: Read this book!

Saller tackled the difficult task of talking about a fairly dry subject while making it accessible to folks who knew nothing as well as folks who know a lot. And kept it interesting.

There are two parts: 1) How to work with the text in the readers’ best interest and 2) How to work.

The first section (How to work with the text) lays out the “subversive” approach Saller advocates: basically, do no harm… even if that means not adhering completely strictly to the stylebook. (*cue communal gasp of shock from the true pedants*)

This is my philosophy, and it’s great! I think it’s the best way to keep a story true to the author’s vision while making the story comprehensible to the reader.

But it’s tricky when you’re a new copyeditor, because it more or less requires you know all the rules and then willfully choose to ignore them when it is appropriate to the book. (There’s a big difference between not changing something because you don’t know it’s wrong and not changing something because it’s wrong but it makes sense for the story.) This means acknowledging that every story is different and will have distinct needs.

Personally, I think that’s a beautiful thing, but not every editor or writer will agree with me.

The second part–how to do the business stuff–was what I was really reading the book for, and that’s the half that earned this book only 4 stars instead of 5. It told me a lot of what I already knew here, too, but the difference was that it said stuff that I figure most business people should know. Things like “don’t pick needless fights,” and “be nice to others.” I realize that’s probably idealistic of me to think most people already know that kind of thing, and it certainly is good advice for the utterly clueless, but that wasn’t really what I was coming to the table for. Aside from the one chapter on freelancing, there wasn’t a lot that I found truly applicable to my career–especially as it is increasingly unlikely that publishing house jobs will continue to exist in the future (but I’ll knock on wood, anyway). And the freelancing chapter didn’t match the kind of freelancing I actually do, so even that wasn’t ideal.

That being said, this book was great. I think it might be particularly good for a writer who is fearful of handing her manuscript over to a copyeditor or doesn’t really understand why she should bother. (We can help, I promise! In fact, we LOVE to help!)

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