Sunday, November 20, 2016

268. Confessions of a Comma King: My Career in Freelance Editing

         The diversity of New York City – a common theme in this blog – is seen in the diversity of the occupations of its residents.  This post will glance at one of them, freelance editor, since that was my profession for many years and was – and probably still is – peculiar to New York.

         In the New Yorker in 2015, veteran editor Mary Norris told how she had, almost by chance, become a “comma queen” at the prestigious magazine, thus introducing the term and notion of a “comma queen” to the general public.  That being the case, as a longtime freelance editor, now retired, I can present myself as a onetime “comma king,” though not one so prestigious as a New Yorker practitioner of the trade.

         To start with, why do manuscripts need editors?  Because authors screw up.  If you ever read a book that was lightly edited, or even not edited at all, you’ll find yourself entangled in confusing sentences, needless repetitions, misspellings, puzzling omissions, and other annoyances that keep you from focusing on the book’s content.  So editors exist for a reason.

         And what is a freelance editor?  A freelance editor is an editor who operates independently – probably because he or she wants more free time and a more flexible schedule than a regular job would allow.  The profession is a refuge for would-be novelists and playwrights and other literary ne-er do wells at the outset of their hopefully brilliant careers, when they must focus on the manuscripts of others, and not on their own presumed masterpieces.  And it is peculiar to New York, since that is where publishers cluster, though today there are probably freelance editors elsewhere in the country, thanks to the Internet.     

         As a profession, editing requires good knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and spelling – stuff that pupils were forced to study in school long ago, but in today’s schools generally neglected -- and a fiendish attention to detail.  One is constantly having to decide whether or not to put a comma here, a semicolon there, and one must have mastered the subtleties of the colon and the apostrophe, and the differences between American and British spelling and punctuation.  Details, details, details.

          And how do freelance editors get manuscripts to work on?  By networking, by telling friends in publishing what they’re up to, by advertising or sending out letters to publishers (rarely successful, in my case), by getting to know editors who will then recommend them to other editors.  Once you get your foot in the door, résumés and interviews are rarely necessary; personal recommendations are all that matters.  And why do publishers hire freelancers?  To save money.  They hire them when they need them, and not when they don’t.  And they don’t have to give them pensions or other benefits; freelancers are on their own.

         What is a freelancer’s equipment, aside from sharpened pencils and an eye for detail?  When I was a freelancer back before the Internet, three books:

1.    Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 2nd edition, 1934.  A huge hunk of a dictionary that sits on my desk today, but is rarely used, since now it’s easier to consult the Internet.  This was the Bible of freelancers, much preferred to the 3rd edition of 1961, since it indicated preferred usage; it was the schoolmarm of dictionaries.

2.    The Chicago Manual of Style, 13th Edition, Revised and Expanded, The University of Chicago Press, 1969.  A second Bible, “for authors, editors, and copywriters.”  No graduate student writing a dissertation could be without it.

3.    The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr., with additions by E.B. White, 2nd edition, Macmillan, 1972.  Affectionately referred to as “Strunk” and known to the knowing few.

         From Strunk one learned to use serial commas and commas with nonrestrictive relative clauses; to delete “the fact that” as superfluous; to express co-ordinate ideas in similar form; not to put slang in quote marks; to differentiate between “among” and “between,” and between “farther” and “further”; not to confuse “anybody” with “any body”; and to distinguish between “comprise” and “constitute.”  (“A zoo comprises many species of animals,” but “Many species of animals constitute a zoo.”)  If the very thought of all this baffles or exasperates you, you’ll understand why editors exist.

         But there are different kinds of editing, requiring different skills.  I mostly worked on textbooks from several major publishers – Holt, HarperCollins, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich -- with a scattering of novels and nonfiction titles from Viking, and scholarly works from Oxford University Press’s New York branch.  Proofreading involved reading the galleys of a manuscript and making corrections in the margin, using proofreading  symbols.  Copyediting involved reading the manuscript at an earlier stage and, depending on the needs of the publisher, doing light or heavy editing.  Light editing meant the manuscript was already in good condition or, more likely, the author was resentful of changes.  “She doesn’t like her words being monkeyed with,” one inhouse editor warned me, “and some of her words are just begging to be monkeyed with.” 

         Finally, there is manuscript editing, where the manuscript may be in need of changes, in which case the editor, often working with the author, is expected to intervene.  This was common with textbooks, rare otherwise.  On one occasion I was invited, even urged, to make suggestions about additional material, and this with the full consent of the exhausted author; I in fact became a collaborator, and was generously acknowledged as such by the author when the book came out.  This was a foreign language textbook, and such textbooks usually required heavy editing and a working knowledge of the foreign language.  “The most difficult books we do,” the production people often complained, because they rarely knew the language in question.  I edited occasionally in Spanish, often in French and German, and once or twice even with a book requiring some knowledge of Latin.  (Ah, how I loved to strut my high-school Latin among the hoi polloi!  Oops – that’s Greek.)

         When editing textbooks, I often got to know the authors, either by phone or in person, and a rum bunch they were.  Some of them, at least.  My least favorite one was the coauthor of a very successful English college reader.  A former salesman, he knew the market and knew how to present his book to the professors who might adopt it.  Which evidently entitled him to be nasty.  Me he spared, but everyone else involved in the project he dismissed with scorn.  The top editor of the department hiring me was lazy, he insisted, and had to be prodded to give his manuscript the attention it required (not true; he was diligent but in charge of some fifteen or twenty manuscripts), and the inhouse production editor was “just your or anyone’s Polish grandmother” (she was likable and quite competent).  I was glad to be done with him and came away unscarred.

         The French author of a second-year reader was described to me as “quite dashing and continental; when he’s due to drop in, all the girls are aflutter with anticipation.”  When I met him, I found him to be continental indeed and very sophisticated, but a rather homely forty-year-old.  His French sophistication had dazzled them all, more than making up for his lackluster looks.

         A German textbook author based in Salt Lake City had amusing stories to tell about the Mormons.  But the best story of all, relayed to me by an editor who had visited him there, concerned the noted Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, whose unique and challenging stories I have read in translation.  Borges had visited the author, who asked the blind writer what he would like to do.  “Take me to the mountains,” said Borges, and to the mountains they went.  It was spring and the birds were singing, and Borges listened intently with great pleasure – a revelation for his host, fascinated to see how a blind man could richly appreciate the unseen spectacle of spring.

         Especially challenging was one of the last manuscripts I worked on before retirement: The HarperCollins World Reader, an ambitious anthology of world literature in translation, with an American editor whose enthusiasm recruited contributors, and an English editor who was hired to do the nuts-and-bolts work of editing; I worked with them both.  My job was not to edit the manuscript, but to be in touch with the twenty or more contributors, each a specialist in his or her field, and to encourage them to get their contributions in on time.  The schedule was tight, so the pressure mounted.

         Some of the contributors were a delight to work with, others were cranky and opinionated – supreme examples of the academic mind at its worst.  “You keep changing your mind!” complained the Korean contributor, when I told him HarperCollins had decided to present the book in two volumes, so he would have to do two introductions, instead of one.  I explained tactfully that for the publisher this was an undertaking without precedent, a truly ambitious project, and we were of necessity feeling our way.  “All right,” he said, “but you do the second introduction!”  So I did it, focusing on the postwar division of Korea and the onset of the Korean War – subjects not requiring a profound knowledge, or any knowledge, of Korean literature.  By way of contrast, when I informed another specialist of the need for two introductions – a woman who was busy moving from one university to another, having just been made department head at the second school -- she answered “Got it!” and soon delivered what we needed.

         An unforeseen dilemma arose when one of the contributors, a respected specialist in African literature, suddenly died; fortunately, a substitute – another distinguished scholar – was found to replace him.  But we weren’t always so lucky.  The Australian who was supposed to work with another specialist to present the literature of Polynesia and other regions of the Pacific kept putting me off: “Yes, yes, I’ll get to it soon.”  Then he announced that he would be disappearing into Tahiti for the summer and would be incommunicado, but of course he would be sending the needed material.  By now my suspicions were aroused.  And sure enough, HarperCollins got a brief note soon thereafter, announcing that he was resigning from the project, no reason given.  It was too late to find a replacement, so the Pacific region had only half the material intended.  What the fellow’s problem was we never knew, but he shortchanged the publisher and the book’s future readers.

         Always hanging over us was the schedule, forcing us to constantly hurry the contributors along.  When the inhouse editor informed me that, because of budget considerations, they would have to terminate me, I was relieved.  I wished them and the project well, but I was free at last from the constant pressure.  The anthology appeared in 1994 in two volumes with the thinnest of pages -- 2,796 in all.  Given a copy, I skimmed those pages often, lingering over the Chinese poetry, and tasted an excerpt of Lady Murasaki’s 11th-century Tale of Genji, considered by many to be the world’s first novel,  a Japanese epic relating the amorous adventures of Prince Genji, an emperor’s son by a concubine.  Intrigued by the excerpt, I obtained a copy of the novel in modern translation and read it through, amazed that the chain of seductions didn’t become repetitious, but held me to the end.

         In the same year that saw the publication of the anthology, I retired from freelance editing, though since then I have helped several friends write their memoir: a gay prison inmate who recounts his arrest and imprisonment; a lady from Calcutta whose memoir/cookbook combines accounts of an idyllic childhood with Indian recipes related to each of her reminiscences; and a Sister of Mercy who tells of her bout with life-threatening illness and the recovered memory of being molested in her childhood.  The latter two have now been published, and I’m hoping that the inmate’s memoir will likewise soon appear.

          Another New York moment:  On the 14th Street bus the other day a black man in his forties got on, wearing a knit cap of many colors, a sort of skull cap run riot.  Immediately he began talking loudly left and right, which is not the New York way; one doesn’t address strangers unless you have a particular reason to do so.  He sat down near me and continued his boisterous monologue, mostly incoherent, while flashing a broad toothy grin.  Of what he said I could only make out snatches, as for instance, “No!  I won’t dance!” followed by a chuckle, and then something about how Jesus Christ turned water into wine, which he evidently approved of.  He wasn’t crazy, just ebullient and talkative.  And lyrical, since at intervals he burst into song and, when done, applauded himself.  And how did his neighbors on the bus react?  By remaining expressionless and turning their face away from him, so as to avoid eye contact.  Since he was right in front of me, I could hardly avoid his gaze, so I smiled faintly, then looked casually out the bus window as if there was something there of interest.  At one point, while still blabbing, he took out a small bottle and put a dash of perfume behind each ear.  When he got off at Union Square, still blabbing, the bus was immersed in quiet relief.  I wish the fellow well, but from a distance. The lesson to draw: when you get on a bus in New York, you never know what to expect.

          An election note:  A friend of mine in Florida tells me that when he went to vote, he saw pickup trucks lined up on the grass behind the parking lot, all with shotguns and rifles visible in the rear windows.  Also, there was a tent-kiosk selling Trump T-shirts.  He voted straight Democratic, but wasn't surprised when the state went Republican.

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          My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

          My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  Childe Donald to the dark tower came: our president elect in his tower.
         ©   2016   Clifford Browder


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