Friday, November 21, 2008

On Copy Editors

Copy editors and proofreaders are detail-oriented, meticulous, sometimes fussy people prone to neatness and precision in all things, right? I mean, everyone knows that, right?

Then how to explain me?

I'm a copy editor and proofreader not because of my true nature but in spite of it. I'm a mess. For example, I've never once opened a document containing some old resume or cover letter sent long ago without then discovering some glaring typo I had failed to catch before sending it out to prospective employers. I've lost more keys and even driver licenses than you can shake a bottle of Ritalin at (yes, this got a lot better when I stopped drinking, but not as much better as you'd think). I once went on a job interview not realizing I was wearing one white shoe and one black shoe. (Really. And, yes, I got the job — a waitress gig at a rather gritty oyster bar and pub.)

Then there was yesterday. Yesterday I arrived at the office where I do freelance proofreading and copy editing, walked into the cafeteria (where just a few weeks before I had somehow managed to lose my little insulated lunch bag thingy), opened my already half-opened purse to pay for my coffee, and realized my wallet was gone.

Actually, that's not quite true. The process of definitively "realizing" that something is not in my purse is not something that can be accomplished in a single 10-minute bout of spilling lipsticks and feminine hygiene products all around a cafeteria cash register. To ascertain with any degree of certainty whether something is or is not in my purse is actually five-step process that includes two more frantic rummagings-through, one full dumping-out and one use of a "lifeline," usually in the form of Ted saying, "For the last time, June, I'm looking at the whole pile of junk you poured out of your purse and I don't see your damn (laptop/hoagie/puppy/Toyota Corolla)!"

Still, since my panicked purse-rummaging at the front of a line of hungry co-workers almost counted as a full dumping-out, I was worried. I headed upstairs to alert my editors that I was going to have to drive home to look for it. I got in the elevator. Pressed the button for "5." Rode to about 3 when I heard a clunk, felt a jolt, and realized the elevator had chosen that moment to go on strike.

I pushed "5" and "door open" buttons frantically for a few moments, then I pushed emergency phone button. I heard a little voice.

"Security. Lt. Morgan speaking."
"I'm stuck in the elevator."
"Yes, hello. I'm stuck in the elevator."
"I can hardly hear you. You're stuck in the elevator?"
"Yes, I'm stuck in the elevator!"
"Which elevator?"
"South entrance."
"South entrance?"
"Okay, we'll ..."

Clunk. The elevator moved up the final floor or two, then opened the door to the fifth floor smooth as you please.

"Nevermind. It opened."
"It opened?"
(sound of my footsteps walking away)

I arrived at my workspace and quickly surveyed the editors and designers who were counting on my help that day.

"I know you have pages for me to proof, but I lost my wallet, so I have to go home and look for it. BUT, my writer's group meets for lunch today. So I'll be gone about an hour then I'll be back for about an hour, then I'll be gone for about two and a half hours, then I'll be back for as long as you need me. Will that work with your deadlines?"

The designer, Joy, was the one I was worried about. She was on the tightest deadline and needed me to proofread some pages she was working on. But she said we had a little time. She wished me luck finding my wallet and blessed my mission.

In the parking lot, I checked my car. No luck. I checked around my car. No luck. I drove home (not very well, I might add), checked the place where I park at home. No luck. Checked nearby trash cans, figuring that if someone found it in the street they might take the cash and chuck the wallet. No luck. I went in the house, checked the kitchen and the bathroom and the dining room and the living room and everywhere my wallet might be. No luck.

Then I looked at the time. I had to cancel two credit cards and two debit cards then make an appointment at the DMV. No way was I going to make it back to the office before I had to leave for lunch.

So I e-mailed Joy to make sure it was okay if I came back even later than I had promised. In my e-mail, I almost — almost — asked her take a peek on and under my desk, just to make sure my wallet wasn't there. But I decided not to bother her with that.

I called the four banks, scheduled the DMV appointment, grabbed my passport for I.D. then went to my lunch meeting. These writers' lunches are usually a two-hour affair, but, with extreme apologies, I split after just 40 minutes, explaining that I had shot a whole morning's work driving across town to find my lost wallet.

I got back to the office ... I looked under the desk ...

... and that's where I saw plain as day my wallet, which contained $32 in cash, two utterly useless canceled credit cards and two equally useless canceled debit cards.

Then I proofread eight laid-out pages, catching typos that three editors before me had missed, and copy edited two stories with equal success and attention.

Copy editing, for me, is not a skill or strength in any traditional sense. It's more like a savant ability. I can't remember whether I brushed my teeth on any given morning, but I can catch "lead" in place of "led" in a story the way Rain Man counts toothpicks on the floor. It's weird.

Weirder yet: Remember that I said that I had been in line to pay for a cup of coffee when I noticed my wallet was gone? Well, I got the coffee. That's because, besides some money I knew I had in my wallet, I also had a $20 in my jeans pocket.

I often have random bills and change crammed into pants pockets from workdays gone by. But that's not why I had backup cash yesterday. That morning, as I was about to walk out the door, I knew I had plenty of money to pay for the lunch. I had had perhaps $30 or $40 in my purse when I bought lunch the day before, so I knew I'd have enough left over. Still, I hesitated. I turned to Ted. "Do you have any extra cash? Like $20?"

I felt a little guilty asking and then cramming his $20 into my pocket. I knew perfectly well I had enough to cover me. But some subconscious impulse had inspired the rare request.

And that's why any requests from the scientific community to study me in a clinical environment — be they from neurologists or psychologists or even parapsychologists — will be enthusiastically granted.

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Joel said...

Thanks for sharing this. It evoked a very long response that I decided to tuck away.

I think about this kind of thing a lot. In a lot of ways, I think you've described the human condition. And we are certainly an odd and amusing, frustratingly fragile, limited and weak, but simultaneously powerful and graceful, ultimately ineffable species.

I like us. I don't think Science can ever come close to figuring out how we work. Not that it should stop trying. But the pursuit is a sisyphean endeavor and it's good that we embrace the humor of it all.

June Casagrande said...

Thank you. And thanks for reading the whole thing. I wasn't expecting anyone to actually get all the way through it.

Honestly, in my case, I think it's a coping a skill. A very hard-earned coping skill that I usually just describe with the term "recovering slob." Perhaps "recovering ADD" might be a little more on the nose. But, long story short, I consider it nothing short of a huge that I can actually pay attention to words on a page in front of me.

And great use of "sisyphean." I don't think I've ever seen the adjective form before.

Joel said...

Sometimes it's labor to get through any kind of reading--even a long blog. This post in particular was anything but laborious to read. And I confess that I often put off reading long posts, which is ironic, because even my comments verge on the psychotically verbose.

"Savant" was a nice choice. Part of what I ponder is the possible connection between the dysfunction and gift.

My unposted rant goes on about mystery and the organic. Some day I need to work it into my own blog. I was just chatting with a friend today over a long lunch about "being in the flow" (his words; I used the expression "unconscious" to refer to that positive transcendence). So much in our culture rages against organic and mystic genius. I'm not sure how to fix that. I'm pretty sure we can't control ourselves out of bondage. Which is part of the reason I rest heavily--as much as I'm willing to let me--on Grace.

On "sisyphean": Thanks. I'm not sure if I'd heard it before either. Probably I had. But it was the image and the word I wanted to use. I googled it and found that I was misspelling it (left out the "e"), but I was happy to discover that it was there. I like when that happens.

LL Blackwell said...

I loved this post, too!

I've had many moments similar to almost asking Joy to look under the desk and then not doing it (resulting in several cut fingers, a dog locked in a hot car, and other such fun).

Anyhoo, I am all the more fascinated that you can keep track of what to look up when and maybe think I might have been able to make it as a copy editor, too. Oh well. You can live the dream for both of us.

Joy-Mari Cloete said...

Love, love, love this post.

And you described me, too. I'm a mess. Always. So I feel a bit relieved that it is possible to be a brilliant sub-editor (you) and be a bit of a mess.

Thank you!

June Casagrande said...


Re "So much in our culture rages against organic and mystic genius":

That's really interesting, and it reminds me of something I learned in a political philosophy class in college. The professor talked numerous times about how, back in the day (sorry, prof, I don't remember which day), the way to deal with insane people was not to institutionalize them but to but them on "ships of fools." The reason, little understood today, was not to isolate them or control them or punish them. It was to transport them from port to port so that people could experience their unique insights firsthand. Crazy people were thought to have a rare understanding of the world from which others could benefit.

(The class went on to discuss how "insanity" started to be perceieved as an illness and a thing to be controlled. A big part of the reason for this shift: They had a bunch of empty leper hospitals they didn't know what to do with. So they started putting crazy people into this instutional setting. The resulting institutionalization/medicalization of insanity sort of naturally followed. How's THAT for a comment on a grammar blog?)

June Casagrande said...


You're a teacher, right? I'd guess that the organizational challenges of that job are much tougher than catching some misplaced apostrophes. Any slip-ups in your job take place in front of an audience -- an audience containing some very tough critics.

I guess there's hope for us all!

June Casagrande said...



It's taken me a long time to begin to understand the profound philosophy of Popeye: I am what I am. I tried SO hard to be a meticulous and organized person. I turned over that new leaf so many times it had windshear. Finally I accepted that, with X effort, I can do Y. But promising myself I'll put in A and B and C effort to BECOME D was just not something I was going to do.

Di said...

My children and husband have the same habit of sticking random bills in their pockets...and as chief laundry person, I keep them as tips!

I recently edited a book the topic of which was totally alien to me. But strangely, maybe by intuition, I even picked up on misspellings of technical terms specific to the subject matter. And occasionally something about the name of a Japanese company mentioned would drive me to Google only to find that the name was misspelled.

Sounds cool, right? But I also can't read ANYTHING without internally editing!!

June Casagrande said...

I wrote my last comment before reading this from you. So now I realize I should have said those are newspaper editing terms (much more pertinent to that side of the business because of how fast stories get published and the fact that the reporter, editor, and copy editor are all hooked up to the same computer system.)

Moving on. Yeah, catching typos in terms you don't even know is pretty freaky -- definitely savant-y in a way. I bet linguists would have some understanding of it: Like there are certain patterns to spellings that a savvy person can pick up on. Still, it's kind of nice to know your subconscious is looking out for you even when your conscious mind isn't pulling its weight.

Tessa said...

Wow. I don't know how I managed to get to your blog, but I'm so glad I did! I think it had something to do with and an atheist headstone.. but I guess that's really irrelevant, isn't it?

Right now, I'm in my first year of college, and, as you describe it, I'm beginning to fully realize my somewhat "savant" ability to edit. Last year, as an editor of our school newspaper, I saw the first signs. I caught mistakes three other people would miss. I'm sure I was actually quite annoying in that manner. But I was good.

I began studying Journalism, but I quickly discovered it wasn't my calling. But my love for language has never failed, so now I'm studying English!

The weirdest thing about finding your blog is that, at least at the moment, copy-editing is exactly what I would imagine my dream job to be. And I absolutely LOVE reading up on common grammar errors. I gorge on it; it's my addiction. It never fails to fascinate me. I thought I was crazy, and it's nice to know now that there are other grammar freaks like myself.

So, I just wanted to thank you. Thank you for sharing your blog, so that I may know I'm not alone. And that I should really look into copy-editing in my future.

June Casagrande said...

Hi, Tessa. Thanks for the nice comment.

Copy editing can be EXTREMELY satisyfing. Not just catching the spelling and punctuation and tense errors -- fixing bad sentences and making them good. I don't always pull it off. But when I do, I'm really happy.

Of course, copy editors are notorious for sometimes INSERTING mistakes. It's so easy to do.

My favorite example of how rewording something can result in an error doesn't actually involve a copy editor. But I still love the story: When I was a reporter, I did a story about a new demographics study that showed that the city I covered, Newport Beach, had the smallest minority population of any city in the state. One of the paper's columnists starting writing about that, calling Newport Beach "the least-diverse city in the state." But it wasn't the least diverse. Lynnwood, with a 97% Hispanic population, was least diverse. Newport Beach, was the least diverse majority white city.

If you decide to keep aiming in that direction, note that a background in journalism is very helpful because there are some journalism principles a copy editor must understand -- proper attributions, libel issues, journalism standards and ethics.

Happily, those issues are interesting to learn about, too!


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