Friday, May 15, 2009

Re-Presenting II: The Copy Editor

It's time for another look behind the scenes with George Braziller Blog.

BEFORE IT GOES TO PRESS, it goes to Maria Dering. Maria is a writer, editor, publicist, translator of Russian, French, and Czech, a historian, a lecturer—in short, she knows what she's doing. After wrapping up this season's most important project, we met near the Met to lunch and discuss the art of copy-editing.

George Braziller Blog: When did you start copy-editing?

Maria Dering: It was 1984. At the time, I was working as a technical writer for Smith & Barney, so I did a lot of documentation and interviewing about backroom processing procedures for stock trades and mutual funds. And I was very bored. So I started interviewing for new jobs. Along the way, I happened to meet somebody who worked for a book club, and she asked if I did copy-editing. I said "I don't even know what that is. I know what editing is, but what's the difference?" She said, "Go get the Chicago Manual of Style." [Laughter] I bought it. I remember my first copy was dated 1983. I started reading it and I said "Oh my God." You would think that somebody with a couple of degrees in English would know everything about grammar and style, but I didn't, so I really had to learn.

GBB: This brings up a good question: What exactly is copy-editing? When someone hands you a manuscript and says "Take care of this," how do you know what kind of copy-editing they have in mind? How do you know where to stop?

MD: I think it varies depending on the publisher and writer. I always figure that writers will get furious if I change too much, so I try to do less rather than more. But I read in the fabulous Chicago Manual that a copy editor has to know everything—basically you're a glorified fact checker, grammarian, and syntax technician, and you have to make all the pieces in a paragraph fit together. So I change as little as possible of the author's voice, but if poor grammar gets in the way, it's got to be fixed. When I wrote for HBO, every now and then they'd give me an article to edit, I'd clean it up and they'd say "Oh but it's lost its soul." I'd say, "No, the grammar has been corrected." You can't publish something that's incorrect. Maybe when you read it aloud it sounds wonderful, but when it's in print, it's different—it's permanent, and you look silly if something is wrong.

GBB: You reminded me of something when you mentioned glorified fact checkers—there was a four-page piece in the New Yorker about their fact checkers, and it actually did make fact-checking seem glorious.

MD: Well, you need to be a detective, you need to like problem solving, and you need a really good mind for trivia, because you never know when something is going to pop out of the attic in your head and become useful.

GBB: Do you remember a manuscript that was a nightmare for—

MD: YES. [Laughter] It was a chapter in a psychology book that was so colloquial and so conversational that it really wasn't suitable for print. The author got very angry when all I did was circle certain sentences and say “this is too slangy, you're playing a little fast and loose with facts, please tighten this up, please research this a bit more,” and so on. It's the only time an author has gotten furious with me in that way (and I found out that there had been trouble with this author before). I question why that chapter was even included, because it was jarring compared to the other chapters around it. It was the diference between an experienced psychologist writing and a student writing for a school project. It was that bad.

GBB: So that brings me to the opposite—what's a piece that brought you to new and fascinating things, that taught you something?

MD: Well, one was the Braziller book on Louis I. Kahn, because for that project, I had to really learn about that man. He was such an unknown figure to me that I had to research his life and work and projects. There were a lot of technical terms that I had to familiarize myself with, but I also had to look at blue prints and other books about him. It was fascinating.

GBB: What was it that first led you to Braziller?

MD: I needed a job! [Laughter] I had the directory of publishers, that big thick book, and he was in the B section. I called and I asked "Do you need a copy editor?" At that time, Mary Taveras was there and she said "O my God! We're actually looking for someone to read a manuscript for us right now!" That's how it got started. But I knew about Braziller because, in grad school, we all looked at the Très Riches Heures, and everyone drooled over that book. I knew him from that. I knew the name, I was looking for a job...

GBB: And now you've done over fifteen titles with us.

MD: It's been six years... ... Let's eat.

1 comment:

  1. The key differences between heavy and medium copyedits are the levels of judgment and rewriting involved.

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