You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Workers of the Word Unite

On language and class at the copy desk


Good copy-editing is invisible. Its success is, by definition, an absence and therefore wildly underappreciated. Magazine people in particular tend to remember the copy editor only when an error surfaces and it’s time to apportion blame.

For those who don’t know, the job of a copy editor at a magazine is to take something that’s been written, edited, and revised, and to prepare it for publication. That means reading for typos, spelling, grammar, and clarity, while also upholding the style and reputation of the publication, calling out anything that might be cause for concern. While copy editors grapple with language, fact checkers are busy verifying every claim a story makes. Their queries are combined and given to the editor who approves or rejects them, case by case, and then sends the story back into circulation through all the magazine’s departments. In this way, a story goes round and round, taking shape through an elaborate system of note-passing that probably hasn’t changed much since the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press before dying in obscurity. Nearly every word you read in a magazine, from the mealiest Kardashian caption to the novella-length essay on credit default swaps, has been subjected to this treatment. Copy editors and fact checkers are there to protect the writer, and the vast majority of them (usually writers themselves) take that job seriously. They know full well that, as a species, we delight in pointing out mistakes, especially in matters of self-expression, and even a small error has the potential to undermine a writer’s authority.

I started working as a copy editor for various magazines about eight years ago as a way to support myself while writing fiction. You think it’ll be pretty straightforward, but it’s humbling to realize that the language you wield all day (as a person and a professional) is something you barely understand, and couldn’t begin to explain to the inhabitants of an alien civilization, no matter how patient they were. Copy-editing can be a great job. I’ve always been grateful for the work and especially for the people I’ve met, copy editors, fact checkers, editors, and writers alike.

But copy-editing can also be a soul-crushing enterprise. Not the work itself, which is perfectly pleasant and definitely necessary, but the surprising and strictly enforced class system that almost always accompanies it. Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places, no matter how outwardly easygoing and free-spirited and ad hoc they may endeavor to look on a visit to the office. A funny thing about publishing is that it’s populated almost exclusively by frustrated writers. It’s a kind of slow-burn Stanford Prison Experiment, in which former English majors are randomly assigned the roles of language guard and word prisoner, affirming once more how quickly and insanely people will adapt to new, relative states of power and powerlessness.

Mary Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, illuminates this shadow world at last. It’s part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at The New Yorker (where Norris has worked as a copy editor since 1978). “One of the things I like about my job,” she writes, “is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”

Norris exemplifies what David Foster Wallace observed in “Authority and American Usage”: “We tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something.”

In the face of an etymological mystery, Norris is “ecstatic.” She retraces the evolution of the comma (invented by a Venetian printer, Aldo Manuzio, in 1490 “to prevent confusion by separating things”) and recounts the arcane history of pencils (which were obscure until the Civil War created a demand for “a dry, clean, portable writing instrument”); she pays a visit to the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. She explores the “secret burden of gender” carried by the English language, following the 165-year-old American quest for gender-neutral pronouns (ne, nis, nim; ip, ips; ha, hez, hem; ta; shem, herm; ho, hom, hos; ze, zon), in the context of her own struggle with pronouns and acceptance during the transition of her transgender sister. She delves into the origins and evolution of American English and looks ahead to fresh threats: “Are we losing the apostrophe?”

The truth is that the work of the copy editor is largely disdained. And because their work is so undervalued, copy editors (and fact checkers) routinely work significantly longer hours for much less money (16-hour days without overtime pay aren’t uncommon), and they enjoy few, if any, of the lifestyle perks that come with magazine work (free stuff, cultural cachet). It’s the responsibility of copy editors to pay an almost inhuman amount of attention to the details, but they’re often dismissed as fussy or obsessive. The popular image of the copy editor as a usefully malfunctioning person justifies the natural order of things: In the Calvinistic world of magazines, maladjusted grammar weirdos simply fall to their natural station. That perception is part of why it’s so hard to climb out of the copy pool. Imagine that the characters in “Downton Abbey” have suddenly decided, in Season 6, to put out a monthly magazine (the editors would all be Crawleys, the copy editors and fact checkers Hugheses and Bateses and Carsons), and you have a sense of the degree of professional immobility that exists at most magazines. I’ve often been introduced by co-workers as a “copy editor but socially normal.” People have kindly written letters of recommendation for me in which my ability to function socially at the most basic level ranked above my professional credentials. Of course there are copy editors who are shy, odd, obsessive, perfectionistic—people who are most at ease, for whatever reason, surrounded by the flora and fauna of grammar. One: Why are these such culturally damning qualities? Two: Are these perceived malfunctions generally characteristic of copy editors? They are not. But all across the secret dystopia of Magazineland, copy editors are glaring through their Mr. Magoo glasses at their despised overlords, and fact checkers are dragging their pitchforks across the blurred golden countryside toward town.

“The image of the copy editor,” Norris concedes a little gloomily, “is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the is and crossing the ts and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.”

Sometimes, working late at night in a magazine’s nearly deserted and underheated offices, and wearing an ascot I’d improvised out of a Budweiser T-shirt I’d swiped from the giveaway table, I’d catch my reflection: I was looking a little late-stage Edgar Allan Poe, minus the muttonchops, with sunken eyes and the crooked grimace of someone who was on the verge of detecting the universe’s punchline. I’d feel the ancient bitterness of the copy editor fill my veins; even I was suddenly unable to find the worth of my activities. And it was at moments like this, taking full stock of my situation, that I’d try to recall the many writers—Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Fernando Pessoa, Joseph Heller, to name just a very few—who worked as clerks and copy editors (and not infrequently, who died as clerks and copy editors), and I’d take a kind of abstract comfort in this grim literary tradition of obscurity cut with misery, and feel buoyed by it, albeit in a furious way, thinking, yes, this is the very kind of faux-desperate, hyperinternalized emotional social crisis about which one might write a novel (if one had any fucking free time left). This shadow world is vital and illustrative of the relations among people, and the clerk, with his sick but vivid daydreams about the lives of others, is the perfect literary embodiment of modern alienation and despair.

Consider the proofreaders in Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness and José Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon; the minor civil servants in Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground; the clerk in Robert Walser’s The Assistant, the copy editor in Saul Bellow’s The Victim; and Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, the cryptic god of them all.

Moby-Dick was a failure,” Norris reminds us, standing behind Melville’s chair in his old study in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she’s gone to discover how the mysterious hyphen made its way into the title. She looks out over “the sun falling on a birch tree outside the wavy-glass window and the snow-covered fields stretching all the way to Mount Greylock,” a view that Melville said made him feel “as if he were at sea and Greylock were a sperm whale.” She notes the scrimshaw letter opener; a corkscrew; Melville’s old fire poker in the shape of a harpoon; and she pictures the writer sitting there, at work on the great book before returning to New York “in a spirit of defeat” to work for the next 20 years as a customs clerk.

Though it’s a reflection on failure (of a sort), in Norris’s company, the moment is wholesome in the way that facts can be: For a life dedicated to the written word, these are the terms and always have been. Norris acknowledges that it sometimes sucks (her chapter on the daily life of a copy editor is titled “That Witch!”), but she doesn’t get hung up on it. Her love of language transcends all, reconnecting the alienated pieces of this world—from the micromachinery of the serial comma up to the cosmic mystery of story.

There’s nothing more resiliently human than language. It’s so nuanced and abstract and unpredictable and predictable (only intuitively) that it constitutes the primary test for Artificial Intelligence (in the Turing Test, even the most advanced computers expose themselves as not-human within a few minutes of casual conversation). It’s been a very tough few years for magazines and book publishers, with deep and ongoing cutbacks and layoffs. Copy-editing and fact-checking departments are often the first to go or to be brutally consolidated. But what language reveals, in every choice we make, no matter how trivial-seeming, is: Everything. Everything about our culture and our selves. What a copy editor, fundamentally, asks is: What do you mean here? It’s a question that deserves your respect.