A good copyeditor is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Was that Keats who said that? Hmmmm. A good copyeditor would send you back to check, or might even correct your mistaken quote. But the best copyeditors are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Forty years ago, the good ones would probably also tell you to use quotation instead of quote in the sentence above, the latter being a verb, not a noun. These days, the more informal usage has become fairly common.
When I started writing in the mid-1970s, I was young and innocent and ignorant of how valuable a good copyeditor could be. Partly, I didn’t fathom that bit of wisdom because the best copyeditor I’ve ever had, bar none, was for my first book, which I wrote with John Rugge: The Complete Wilderness Paddler. I was astonished at some of the things she caught. (I think it was a ‘she’ but I can’t say for sure. They were sometimes anonymous and even when not, you never meet them.) I still remember her changing Jello to Jell-O, though I can’t remember whether she put a trademark symbol after the word. Also, she would write things like, “On page 40, you mention a book called The Bark and Skin Canoes of North America by William Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. But in the bibliography on page 258 you say it is 'Howard T. Chapelle.' Which middle initial is correct?” That may have been the point when I first went out and bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
My next book, The Logic of Millennial Thought, had a fairly dismal copyeditor —and this was Yale University Press! He/She actually introduced an error into the text. I had Samuel Sewall "poring over a manuscript” and the copyeditor “corrected” it to read “pouring over a manuscript.” As if Sewall had other things to do with his beer than drink it! Fortunately in page proofs I caught one other mistake that was missed…a misspelling of the title of my book smack dab on the title page! It read The Logic of Millenial Thought instead of Millennial Thought. It’s a bit tricky because millennial has two n’s but millenarian, a similar term, has only one. I almost missed it. Then there is my Oxford book, ‘They Say:’ Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. The theme of the book revolves around identity, and how you define yourself over and against how others define you. What they say, in other words. And in fact, Ida Wells for a while wrote a newspaper column entitled “They Say”…sort of news notes about goings on in the African-American community in Memphis. So the title of my book has “They Say” within quotation marks. The copyeditor on the book was only so-so, and using the quotation marks seemed to me to be logical. Only some years later did I go back and, by accident I expect, discover that, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, it was improper to include quotation marks in a book title, even if the title included a quotation, like “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Patrick Henry and the Rise of Specious Eloquence. This makes sense to me now, but I regret to say I didn’t think about it at the time. And neither did my copyeditor.
The best copyeditors are at trade houses supposedly, like Knopf or Viking or Little Brown. Textbook and university press copyeditors vary much more in quality. Sometimes copyeditors will have specific issues they focus on that others have ignored. I remember that for the third or fourth edition of After the Fact, we had a copyeditor who went through and systematically changed every reference in which we used "black" or "white" as a noun . (E.g., "a number of whites converged at the waterfront..." was changed to "white men" or "white people.") That was the only copyeditor we had used who made those changes, which earlier copyeditors had not flagged. But sensitivities do change over time. I note that the same distinction became an issue in 2007, when the Associated Press wrote an article referring to Barack Obama as "the lone black" in the U.S. Senate. A faculty member of the Poynter Institute for journalists explained the thinking on using black or white as a noun:
The best copyeditors have an eye both for detail and for larger meanings. It’s seldom that one gets someone who does both chores well. For A Little History of the United States, my editor told me I was given one of the house’s best copyeditors, and I can believe it. As every copyeditor does, she kept a style sheet of how key terms and names were treated, for consistency (Vietcong, not Viet Cong; use a comma after the full name, separating it from Jr., as in Martin Luther King, Jr.) But she asked larger questions. For example, my manuscript spoke of the huge toll taken by disease in the Americas during the sixteenth century, noting estimates of something like 90 million deaths over the course of the century. She queried: "This might be fine, but it’s my job to question! It’s said [in an earlier chapter] that there were 8 million Indians in North America in 1492. Granted that here you’re talking about Central and South America over a period of a hundred years, but still... 90 million? Please verify."
I replied, "Quite all right to query—the figure is astonishing and the estimates extremely difficult to make. The population die-off estimates vary widely and have expanded greatly from those made by scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. A very rough estimate (but such estimates must inevitably be rough given the paucity of record-keeping), is that North American population was around 8-10 million (I went with the lower range of the estimate, and some scholars out of the mainstream, notably Henry Dobyns, have suggested 18 million). Central and South America had about ten times as many people, estimates suggest. And calculations are that the successive pandemics killed off over 90 percent of the population. Charles Mann, 1491, reviews the debate between so-called “High Counters” and “Low Counters.” You’ll see I changed my figure of 90 million above; I think it does make sense to give a range, so that people get a sense that when we say about 50 to 90 million, we’re talking wide variation. I do tend to lean toward the High Counters’ side (though I’m no expert, just have read in the literature). Even if we’re talking 50 million, it’s still a bigger loss than in any other century of recorded world history."
To sum up: Praise be to sharp copyeditors! They make life immensely easier for authors; and, while invisible to readers, make life better for them too.
I graduated over fifty years ago from The Harley School in Rochester, New York and was delighted to receive the above snapshot from Karen Saludo, who works at the school now. "I was walking down senior hallway and saw your book!" she reports. "You can see it has been used quite a bit."
In fact I knew that, having corresponded with Sandy Foster, who teaches American history there. He assigns it as summer reading to help students get up to speed before they take his class there in the fall, and reports high student engagement, which I'm glad to hear. This specimen seems well thumbed, certainly, which would seem to indicate a dogged devotion to the work!
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors