You Don’t Have to be a Comma Nerd to Appreciate One

A friend recently sent me the link to an article by Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Here’s the article. It’s a fine read, even if you have little interest in commas. (I’m guessing the article might pique your interest, though.)

I’ve had many different jobs in several, quite different book publishing houses. Copy editing was my least favorite, in part because I dithered. Did this rule apply–or that? Was it a restrictive clause–or not? Later in my career, I used to drive a managing editor who went through comparing author and proofreader changes to distraction by telling her that grammar was an art, not a science. I also told her that, in all but the most egregious instances, the author is always right. If you are the author it is, after all, your name on the front of the book.

I worked with one writer who took a leaf from Kurt Vonnegut about semicolons. To wit: “Don not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” The copy editor and managing editor on the project did not share this view. Many semicolons were added. The author took them all out. The managing editor put them back in. The book was typeset and sent back to the the author and the proofreader. The author blew a gasket at that point and called me. The author, as I said, is always right. The semicolons went. The staccato sentences stayed.

I am not a very good copy editor. I have great admiration for good copy editors. They save writers from grief. They make the illegible legible. Sadly, except at venerable institutions like the New Yorker, copy editing is becoming an archaic activity. Computer programs with spelling and grammar checks are not copy editors.

My takeaway is this: read the article if you wish. But, whatever you do, before you publish a book, pay attention to the copy editor. I always tell authors that he or she is the first disinterested person to read your work. Pay attention to queries that essentially say: I don’t understand what you’re getting at. If a person who’s being paid to read is getting kicked out, imagine how your readers might react. And, if you’re publishing independently, do yourself a big favor. Hire a copy editor.

Now I’m going to post this and wait for the friend who sent me the article to correct my post. He’s a much better copy editor than I am.