The Danger in Drudgery

Editor’s Corner

The most mind-numbing job I ever had was in an insurance company filing papers—carts full of policies to put in numerical order, hour after hour, 1064952, 2586027, 1943902, 1064951. The only thing that kept me awake was the occasional paper cut. I’m sure they’re still looking for some of the policies I misfiled in my stupor.

Every writer or editor is faced with a mindless task now and then: alphabetizing, renumbering, abbreviating, spelling out. When it comes to word processing, people sometimes ask “Can’t your computer do that?” and thank goodness, most often it can—but this means I’m all the more impatient and bored when it can’t.

Ironically, these simple but mindless tasks are the ones that most easily get me into trouble. If a find-and-replace operation has to be done one by one, the repetitive boredom can send me miles away mentally. Before I realize it, I’ve spelled out something that should have stayed abbreviated, or I’ve clicked Find Next a couple of times when I should have clicked Replace—or did I? And how far back do I need to go to check my work?

When you’re faced with a tedious writing or editing task, here are some ways to cope.1

1. Automate.
The computer is the writer and editor’s best friend when it comes to getting through repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, many of us have barely begun to tap into the power of word processing. Confess: how many of you have manually numbered or alphabetized a long list instead of letting Word do it?
Next time you suspect there’s a better way, invest the time to learn how to do it. The answer is probably just a Google away, and you’ll never have to do that hateful chore the hard way again.2
2. Delegate.
That’s right: if you have an assistant, freelancer, or student, that’s what they’re for. (If you happen to be the assistant, freelancer, or student, thank you for your support!) If you’re editing work that’s under contract for publication, and if the publisher has submission requirements that haven’t been met, you might be able to return it to the author for reworking. If you’re a freelancer, you might be able to farm out certain chores to another freelancer. But don’t sneak: see whether the assigning editor will allow you to subcontract.
3. Reevaluate.
Probably more often than we’re willing to admit, a fussy, time-consuming task doesn’t actually need to be done. We do it because we can’t help it, not because it’s a real improvement. Changing a perfectly good styling because it’s not the style we prefer should be a last resort. In fact, if the current format is accurate and consistent, you risk messing things up by interfering. If you don’t have the authority to depart from style, ask permission. If permission is denied, move on for your bonus tip.
4. Accept your fate.
Try your best to do a good job. Break up the task into small chunks, if possible, and give yourself a little treat at the end of each chunk. You’ll deserve it!

1. These tips are adapted from The Subversive Copy Editor, 60–62.

2. For terrific MS Word tips, see our recent interview with Word guru Jack Lyon as well as Lyon’s Editorium website and Allen Wyatt’s WordTips site.

Photo: Work Conditions: Ingersoll Watch Company, c. 1900, by William M. Vander Weyde, accession no. 1974:0056:0246, courtesy George Eastman House

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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