The Subversive Copy Editor: A Short Review

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2014-05-06


Back when I was learning the nuts and bolts of copyediting, one of the tenets our instructor came back to repeatedly was “The Five Cs”: our goal as copy editors should always be to render text that is correct, consistent, clear, concise, and complete. So when I spotted a slim volume entitled The Subversive Copy Editor on a colleague’s shelf, I was instantly intrigued.
Editorial subterfuge? Track changes turned off before a heavy slash-and-burn edit? Deliberately introduced spelling errors? The title sounded like a clarion call to undermine the very principles of the editing profession.
Of course, it’s not. Author Carol Fisher Saller is a manuscript editor with the University of Chicago Press, publisher of the doorstop-sized (1,026 pages, 102 of them the index) Chicago Manual of Style to which we editors refer constantly, particularly when dealing with the finer or more arcane points of editing.  
A Short History of CMOS
CMOS started out in 1906 as a notebook-sized guide for proofreaders at the press and dealt largely with matters of typography. Over time, it codified more and more stylistic and grammatical issues, became larger with each edition (the current one, published in 2010, is the sixteenth), and entered the digital age with an online edition, which includes a Q & A page. This is where Saller comes in: she’s the person who reads and answers every question sent in by editors, would-be editors, writers, readers, and anyone else who stumbles onto the page — including the odd person seeking fashion advice!
She fields their queries with clarity, grace, and no small measure of humour, and in her book she approaches larger topics in exactly the same way. The book’s subtitle, Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself), gives away the author’s true intent: this is a book about the relationships copyeditors need to maintain and nurture — with writers, colleagues, and themselves. What, you might ask, is subversive about that?
Subversive Copyediting Defined
The subversion lies solely in throwing overboard those oppressively inflexible rules or attitudes that, instead of helping us do a better job, actually get in our way. In only 120 pages, Saller dispenses wise and generous counsel on how to adhere to the principles of editorial carefulness, transparency, and flexibility without going completely insane. She tackles not only concrete topics (such as dealing with word processors, deadlines, organization, emails, and documentation) but also personal and interpersonal ones (such as editorial disagreements, handling stress before it escalates, dealing with bullies, and examining your motives).  And she does it all with a light touch and a wink.
This is a great little book to read cover to cover or to dip into randomly. Whichever you choose, you’ll close the book with a smile on your face and a little less anxiety in your editorial or writerly heart.
For a sneak peek, check out Carol Saller’s website.