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Monday, December 3, 2012

The Agony of a Copy-Editor

Can you hang a washcloth inside out?


‘We’re freaks,’ one said. ‘Why are we still talking about typos?’

‘Are we ever going to be normal ever again?’

‘Have we been ruined . . . for life?’

-- Conversation in a restaurant, after the marathon copyediting of Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists

We were sitting at the pub down the street from the office. We’d just printed out the Book – a whole manuscript of The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists – and sent it off to the proofreader for final checking. It was Friday afternoon, and we were ready to celebrate. We’d spent weeks glued to our desks until all hours of the night, poring over pages and staring at our screens, fielding queries from fact checkers and comments from translators and changes from authors. We’d met our deadline. The issue looked good.

Still, my head was full of tiny, miscellaneous, lingering concerns: Would ‘upon’ be better if capitalized in a title? Should a washcloth be described as hanging inside out? What’s the best translation ‘Why are we still talking about typos?’ for xoxota: ‘cunt’ or ‘pussy’? Can a city be dust-covered and windy at the same time? Have we been consistent in the way we punctuate maté, Sugarloaf Mountain, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the Candidates Tournament for chess and every one of the numerous international airports mentioned in the stories? Is it possible for a headless chicken to stare at you? Does ‘shithole’ have a hyphen in it?

For the weekend, at least, I could put all these thoughts aside. It was lovely to be able to relax with colleagues.

There was talk of ordering some food. I looked down at the sandwich menu: kiln smoked salmon and horseradish chive creme fraiche in toasted wholemeal bread. ‘Kiln smoked’ probably should be hyphenated, I thought – it’s acting as an adjective modifying smoked salmon – and ‘creme’ needs the accent. Also, does ‘in’ make sense here? Wouldn’t it be better if it was ‘on’? Was this some kind of innovative sandwich that involved salmon being placed inside the bread?

‘Why don’t we share some appetizers to start?’ one of us suggested.

‘Redundant,’ I muttered to myself. Appetizers are starters; either cut ‘to start’ or change ‘appetizers’ to ‘plates’. Then again, in some cases, people order only appetizers, and don’t go on to have a main course. So was it actually essential to say ‘to start’, to clarify that, in this instance, everyone should feel free to order more food after the first sharing course? I wasn’t sure.

I tried to concentrate on the actual conversation. The topic, it seemed, was the new Batman film.
‘It has a spelling mistake in it,’ someone said. ‘There was a shot of a newspaper headline. Spelled “hiest” instead of “heist”.’

‘Christ. Multimillion-dollar movie.’

‘Seriously. It was pretty hard to concentrate on the scene after that.’

...

There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.

As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.

How true.  Intrigued?  Read the rest.

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