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We can turn it off

Carol Fisher Saller has a typically pointed and elegant post at The Subversive Copy Editor about reading the work of friends. We can, she says, turn off the copy-editing function at will:

And what a luxury, to sail past inconsistent spellings, iffy punctuation, and inattention to Chicago style. Unlike many copyeditors, I can take off that hat and it pretty much stays off. (You won’t hear me brag that I can’t read past a typo. I’m more likely to be flummoxed when a friend writes me to correct her previous e-mail, not having noticed the typo in the first place.)

Indeed. I remember reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code; one merely goes very fast, for plot alone. You can get it all down, like that stuff they make you swallow the day before the colonoscopy.*

I can also—even though the adepts at Myers-Briggs would say, “He’s such a J”—suspend the critical function when reading correspondence from friends. I don’t edit conversations or correct pronunciations, though I may sometimes take off my glasses.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a professional editor. I edit for money, unless I am persuaded to edit pro bono. So don’t be shy. You can comment here without fearing that you ought to kowtow as you approach the Seat of Judgment. And while people can—and do—say any manner of rude things about me, I take a dim view of attacks on other readers of the blog. (Indoor voices, remember?)

There are, after all, different levels of reading. I enjoy murder mysteries. After a long day of working with professional journalists, who wouldn’t like to read about disagreeable people meeting violent death? And I think that everyone should cultivate some such low taste, so as not to become unduly refined.

But a copy editor reading something more ambitious and accomplished can appreciate at a level that many civilian readers do not. Civilians can tell that they are enjoying a text, but we can see why we are enjoying it: the apt selection of words, the cadence of sentences, the overall structure and the intricacy of organization within that structure. Editing is a craft, and one craftsman recognizes another.


*I confess, though, that Angels and Demons was so vile that I ground to a halt and abandoned it after a couple of chapters—if that much.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (6)


I am always taken aback when noneditor friends expect that I will lecture them about typos or grammatical infelicities in their e-mails to me. I would be just as unlikely to lecture them as my graphic-artist friend would be to critique the design of my web site unless I asked her to do so. All I can surmise is that such friends were victims of overzealous English teachers earlier in their lives.

As a confirmed amateur, I will continue to correct the writings of those who should know they are my inferiors.

Redundant adj. 1. overzealous English teacher.

I can certainly see why you read the Da Vinci Code; that's why I read it, too. But why did you move on to Angels and Demons?

There was a copy lying about, and I picked it up.

Hmmm. I thought Angels and Demons was better than The DaVinci Code. Not that either are Great, but the man can spin a yarn. (Now, Digital Fortress: that one I couldn't read.)

"You can get it all down, like that stuff they make you swallow the day before the colonoscopy."

And with similar purgative results.

"Digital Fortress" started out with a bunch of NSA cryptographers discussing an interesting crypto problem in the presence of an uncleared civilian linguist whom they had brought in as a consultant because NSA didn't have anyone who could read Japanese. Its credibility went down from there.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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