Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s “Comma Queen,” talks about styles, tolerance, and her new book

Mary Norris landscapeMary Norris is a copy editor at the New Yorker, where she has worked since 1978. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she attended Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and earned a master’s in English from the University of Vermont. Her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen was published by W. W. Norton on April 6.

Carol Fisher Saller is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor.

CFS: Mary, congratulations on your new book! I want you to know that you already have a fan club here at CMOS. (Honest—some of our best friends use New Yorker style.)

So far I’ve seen you in Publisher’s Weekly, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Slate, New Republic, on NPR and YouTube—I stopped keeping track. By the time this interview is posted, everyone will already have heard about your comma shaker, your relentless quest for the perfect pencil, and all the hilarious goings-on behind the scenes at the New Yorker. So let’s do something different here. Our readers have a high-level interest in your work. Let’s talk copyediting.

You’ve used New Yorker style your entire working life. Do other styles distract you?Comma shaker

MN: I love it that other copy editors are enjoying the book. Good to know that our disparate styles do not keep us from acknowledging that we are all in this together and that we enjoy it (most of the time).

It’s true that the New Yorker has formed my tastes to a huge degree. We have a few peculiarities that I have gotten used to (actually, we would say “that I have got used to”—that’s one that I have never gotten used to). When it was time to start preparing my own manuscript for publication at Norton, the people there kindly asked me if I wanted to follow New Yorker style or if I would be adopting Norton’s style. Both options had their attractions: I am so used to New Yorker style that I thought my prose would look foreign to me: What, no diaereses in coöperate and reëlect? (Those might be the epaulettes of print.) No double consonants in travelling and focussed? (Spell-check is playing havoc with my illustrative spellings here.)

I decided to go with Norton’s style for two reasons: The first was that I expect writers who publish in the New Yorker to shut up and accept our style, so why wouldn’t Norton expect the same from me? I wanted to be amenable. The second was that I thought following Norton’s style would be more interesting. And it has been. For the most part, it’s been fine. It doesn’t make any difference whether marvelous is spelled with two l’s or one, unless I am trying to make a point. But I have a hard time getting used to seeing book titles in italics instead of roman with quotes.

Speaking of titles, the one thing that still looks wrong to me is that at the New Yorker we capitalize four-letter prepositions that have two syllables: into, over, upon. Also prepositions of more than four letters: toward, within, between. It came up in books whose titles I quoted (actually, I see they let me get away with The Reader Over Your Shoulder and Slouching Towards Bethlehem) as well as in my own chapter titles (“A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar”).

CFS: Well, in theory I feel as you do, that there’s room for many styles, but in practice using anything but Chicago makes me twitch a little. When I was writing for a blog that uses New York Times style, the one thing I remember positively disliking was capping words like page in the middle of a sentence: see the note on Page 32. Who ever thought that was a good idea?

But talking about tolerance reminds me of something you say in your book:

The image of a copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.

So what happened? How did you turn out so well? I think many editors can see a bit of themselves somewhere in that paragraph. Can you offer some encouragement?

Between You & MeMN: Rereading this, I realize that “the image of the copy editor” is how copy editors are viewed from the outside. Someone who values consistency doesn’t see that as a negative trait—she is proud of it—and mean people probably are not conscious of how mean they are, or they would try harder not to be. Or maybe they would try to be meaner—I don’t know. One day, I came to the glum conclusion that my job was pointing out other people’s mistakes (my younger sibling said to me, “You should be good at that”), and I worried that the job was cultivating that trait in me, a pleasure in finding fault with people. So I tried to think of it more as helping writers.

It is true that you don’t get much acknowledgment as a copy editor—wouldn’t you think someone would buy you a beer or send flowers once in a while when you save his ass? But no—you’re getting paid for it, and that should be enough. That was what I had signed on for—it’s a humble job—and I was determined not to be bitter about it.

It is important to me to be professional. If I have to work on a piece by someone whom I envy—say, a woman my own age who does not, in my opinion, write as well as I do but who is thin and blond and has self-confidence and is just plain lucky—I always err in the direction of tolerance, even if I want to rip that prose to shreds. We take a “typographic oath” as copy editors: Try not to do anything stupid. Whatever you do, don’t insert a mistake. At a magazine, you’re part of a team: you have to get behind the writer.

It is true that you don’t get much acknowledgment as a copy editor— wouldn’t you think someone would buy you a beer or send flowers once in a while?

Gradually, I found that there are two things going on: Writers I admire inspire me to want to go and do likewise—be adventurous and go places and do things and get a story out of it. And writers I scorn make me want to find time to write myself, to make something of my own instead of always editing others. Either way, you have to put your feelings aside and give every piece of writing a fair read, edit it as you would have others edit you.

The first time I was asked to edit—not just to copyedit (which I know you’ll make one word [OK—just for fun.—CFS]) but to improve a piece of prose without the filter of the editor between the writer and me—I remember examining my conscience to make sure that everything I did was in the interest of improving the piece, regardless of my feelings for the writer or the subject. That was an important moment. I saw myself as working for the language itself, in a way, and trusted myself to do no harm.

CFS: It’s good advice for disgruntled editors: be professional, do no harm, and work “for the language.” I like the concept of working for the language—especially in those situations where you aren’t sure who the reader is.

Something else we struggle with is the drive to track down what’s “correct.” I know this from questions we receive at our Q&A, like “Does bare chested take a hyphen? I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find it.” In your book you write, “The awful truth about hyphens and copy editors is that if there is one you want to take it out and if there’s not one you’re tempted to put one in.” What advice do you have for writers or editors who agonize over what’s correct?

MN: First of all, yes: bare-chested takes a hyphen. I like easy questions. The more I research a problem, the more oracles I consult, the more clearly I see that you can rationalize almost anything. I have a friend at work who is always asking, “But what is the rule?” She hates it when I can’t give her a rule. It depends on who the writer is and what the writer wants and how much variety the publication is willing to admit. As long as a usage is consistent throughout a given piece, it’s OK, even if that usage is not the general rule of the publication. It probably shouldn’t depend on the copy editor’s mood, though some days I feel more tolerant than others. Uniformity is pleasing, not boring. I’ve found myself thinking lately that a house style is like the offerings at a favorite restaurant: when you go there, you know what to expect, and you’re not disappointed. That’s the kind of consistency we’re after. My advice is: Don’t drive yourself crazy.

CFS: But don’t you think it’s easy for experienced editors to say “Don’t drive yourself crazy”? New editors probably need to drive themselves crazy for a while until they’ve read enough, made enough mistakes, and have enough experience at both being successful and at failing. By then they’ll have the confidence to know when chasing down a rule isn’t worth the bother. And even then—well, don’t you still drive yourself crazy sometimes?

The more oracles I consult, the more clearly I see that you can rationalize almost anything.

MN: You’re right—I guess I do. When my book was being copyedited, I wanted to be reasonable, to accept what the copy editor did, and maybe even learn something. He knew things I didn’t know—the difference between if and whether, and into vs. in. I took his changes, but when I saw some of them in print I balked and changed them back. Example: my chapter title “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?” I just didn’t like “Who Put the Hyphen into Moby-Dick?” I had heard it in my head in my own voice, and I liked it the way it was, rule or no rule. I didn’t want to have to follow a rule that I had never imposed on anyone else. But I didn’t know how to defend it, either—I certainly didn’t want to invoke rhythm! When I was on the other side of the equation, I was happy to let author’s choice win the day.

As a copy editor, when I feel strongly about something, I try three times, and if the editor and the author resist, I give up. All they have to say is “We kind of like it this way.”

Arguments can go on forever, but when you’re copyediting something, there comes a point when you just have to make a decision. Whether it’s the best decision or not, it’s the best one you can make at the time. And if there’s something you can’t decide—say, whether to give a collective noun a plural or a singular verb—there is always the option of letting it alone.

CFS:  About that chapter title—why not invoke rhythm? Maybe you didn’t want to sound like a writer-diva, but it seems to me this was one of those times when rhythm was precisely the point! Anyway, you’ve hit on something key in the relationship between writers and copy editors: that whoever feels the strongest should probably get their way, and you did get your way with Moby-Dick, and your writers get their way after resisting you three times. And at least in the event of later public ridicule, the copy editor knows that she tried; she did her job; she has evidence. Only the writer has regrets. (Not that we ever say “I told you so”—although I confess to having thought it.)

Speaking of rhythm and diva potential, one last question: I think you’d make a good novelist. Any thoughts on that?

MN: (Shouldn’t it be “whoever feels the strongest should probably get his or her way”? Or has Chicago caved and accepted the so-called singular their? Hottest topic in copy-editing today!) [Believe it or not, CMOS first gave the singular they a nod more than twenty years ago in the 14th edition. We don’t like to see it in sentences that are easily reworked, but with anyone who, or someone who, or whoever, we think it’s often the best solution.—CFS]

I’m gratified by that question, because while I have been lucky enough to make a good living as a copy editor, I have always thought of myself as a writer. I did write a novel—spent years on it, had an agent, sparked some interest with an editor or two—but I never succeeded in publishing it. I was embarking on a fourth revise (and I had thought three would be the magic number!) when 9/11 happened, and since my story was set in the mideighties, it felt irrelevant. I was a minor casualty of 9/11.

My advice is: Don’t drive yourself crazy.

Reading novels now, I am full of admiration for the way plots are woven. My novel was episodic, heavily dependent on voice. No doubt one problem was my method: I wrote scenes/reflections on postcards—one chapter was written on a pile of postcards of Bellevue Hospital—and then chopped them up and made a mosaic out of them. I got superstitious about the theme of the postcards; for one chapter, I squandered valuable writing time searching for postcards of noses. I have heard that Nabokov wrote on index cards, but this was different. And I am no Nabokov. All of which is to say that I had structural problems.

Just to circle back, I think that being a writer has made me a better copy editor. I value the writer’s voice and I don’t rewrite. It means suppressing my own voice, but you have to be able to do that. I’ve seen writers try their hand at editing and fail, because instead of editing they rewrite in their own style, and everything comes out sounding like them. By being edited at the structural level, I’ve seen how a good editor strips away the dross and makes you sound like pure you. Would I have been more fulfilled if I’d had a thirty-year career as a novelist/journalist/essayist? Who knows? Between You and Me started with a blog post on New Yorker commas. It’s very funny to me that I broke through to the other side on the back of a comma.

Mary Norris’s book tour continues through May.

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