The inside scoop on copy editing at The New Yorker

The work of the copy editor is not easy. Not only must he or she be an expert in grammar, usage, and punctuation, the copy editor must also avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of often touchy authors. Perhaps the most exalted position that a copy editor can attain is at The New Yorker, which for decades has set the standard for not only quality, but also essentially error-free, content.

Mary Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for a number of years, and she recently agreed to be interviewed by Andy Ross, who is a literary agent in Oakland, California. The entire interview is well worth a read, but I found the following excerpt to be particularly interesting:

Andy: Can you describe for us what a typical day is for you at The New Yorker?

Mary: The hours at The New Yorker are from ten to six, and I try to be on time, as it is embarrassing to be chronically late when you don’t have to be at the office till ten. We have a weekly schedule for closing the contents of an issue in an orderly fashion: fiction closes early in the week, critics at midweek, and the longer, more demanding pieces near the end of the week; Talk of the Town and Comment go to press last, on Friday. The head of the copy department, Ann Goldstein, parcels out the week’s tasks, matching up who is available with what needs to be done. If the lineup changes, we readjust.

There are four full-time O.K.’ers, as well as a team of about six proofreaders, some of whom act as O.K.’ers when we need them. Basically, on the day a piece closes, you read it, and give the editor your query proof, which will also contain the queries of a second proofreader, and after the editor has entered all the acceptable changes and sent the new version to the Makeup Department, you read that new version. There will sometimes be a “closing meeting,” when the editor, the writer, the fact checker, and the O.K.’er sit down together over the page proof and discuss final changes. The O.K.’er then copies these changes onto a pristine proof called the Reader’s (to keep the paper trail) and enters them into the electronic file, and sends the revised piece back to Makeup. The next version is read against the Reader’s proof by another layer of proofreaders, the night foundry readers. The system is full of redundancy and safety nets.

Andy: Wow! That is even more proofreading than I do on this blog.  You do copy editing there. What is a copy editor? How is it different from a line editor?

Mary: The job descriptions at The New Yorker are different from those at book publishing houses and other magazines. We have a copy desk, and the job of the copy editor is to do the first pass on a piece, when the manuscript is “set up,” that is, set in type for general distribution. At this stage, the copy editor makes minimal changes, in spelling and punctuation, to conform to New Yorker style. You may have noticed that we spell “theatre” the British way, reversing the “er” to “re,” and double consonants before suffixes (“travelled,” rather than “traveled”); we use the diaeresis in words like “coöperate” and “reëlect”; we prefer the serial comma; we spell out round numbers, even big ones. The copy editor does not make any interpretive changes.

Next (and you won’t find this job anyplace else) a piece is “Goulded.” This used to be the domain of the legendary Eleanor Gould Packard, a grammarian and a genius whose old office I now occupy, though I am neither a grammarian nor a genius (except for real estate: the office has a great view). One of the query proofreaders, on a day when she is not O.K.’ing a piece, reads the galleys of a piece that is scheduled for a future issue, fixing spelling and punctuation, of course, but also making more subtle suggestions.  Query proofreaders at The New Yorker are probably more like line editors at other publications. We go over the piece twice. We fix danglers. We try to improve the sentences, making sure that the author is saying what he or she intends to say. Eleanor Gould was big on clarity, and I have absorbed some of that. Basically, you’re giving the piece a really close reading.

When a piece is scheduled to run in the magazine, we read it again, twice. As I said above, in addition to the O.K.’er, each piece has a second reader, to back up the O.K.’er. The O.K.’er then has the duty of reading the piece yet again, to make sure no mistakes have been introduced, and also to smooth things out. Sometimes a fact checker’s language does not blend in with the writer’s voice, although the checkers work closely with the writers. Any material added by the writer or the checker has to be copy-edited. This takes as long as it takes, and we don’t rush out at 6 P.M.

That’s a pretty impressive amount of work, and I think it’s safe to say that very few people have the expertise and temperament to do it effectively.

If you’ve found this excerpt interesting, why don’t you take a look at the entire interview. Mary Norris will make sure that you never confuse the usage of the words “lie” and “lay” again.

David Desmond


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