CRF Blog

Workers of the Word Unite

by Bill Hayes

In Workers of the Word Unite for the New Republic, Julia Holmes reviews Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris.

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. [more]