An Editorial Strut: How the Comma Queen Revitalized My Joy For Editing

The American Copy Editors Society hosted a recent Twitter chat on keeping your focus on editing during the summer. The ensuing conversation had some great tips for breaking up a long work day and managing time.

My recommendation for revitalizing your editing is to read Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, longtime editor at The New Yorker. The immensely entertaining book does contain specific grammar and spelling treatises that I’ve already dog-eared to refer back to for eternity. But even more than sharpening my attention to details, the book renewed my sense of purpose about the editing process overall. Norris writes about her work with an editorial strut that I sometimes lose in my own step.

I love to edit; I love to get words right. Not everyone else thinks this is as fun or important as I do. Proofreaders and editors are seen as nitpicky, holding up creative thoughts by obsessing over how they’re spelled or punctuated. Or dulling down brilliant words by mercilessly applying a rigid set of rules. But what good editing does is clear the way for those thoughts—those words—to get right to the audience, with no distractions. Norris’s wonderful analogy is: “You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up—unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.”

She also reminds me that editing is fun—can even be exciting in its own way. She writes about overnights at the magazine to make sure the final proofs got checked during a blizzard, the intricate layers of checking and querying that go into each article, and heated debates over how to render swear words in print.

This book perfectly blends descriptions of the fascinating characters and tales of Norris’s editorial career with clear, smart expositions of grammar rules that set off lightbulbs over my head every few pages. Norris’s R-rated example of when to use an activating hyphen is the best, most precise explanation of a rule that had always slowed me down. Not anymore! Check out page 122—you’ll laugh out loud, as you become instantly smarter.

Norris writes in the Introduction: “One of the things I like about my job 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. And in turn it feeds you more experience.”

If those two sentences don’t revitalize your editing, I don’t know what will! Keep up momentum going with “The Comma Queen” video series and with #ACESchat.


Written by Sheila Gagen, Director of Editorial Services at Vector TalentMEDIA. For more information about how TalentMEDIA can help with your next editorial project, contact Sheila today!