Carol Fisher Saller—”Subversive” editing: or, what bugs editors and how to fix it (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor and editor of the monthly Chicago Style Q&A, gave the opening keynote at Editing Goes Global. With facetious, deadpan delivery, she took aim at the niggling neuroses that prevent editors, who have a reputation for being technophobic grammar sticklers, from reaching their potential. “Some of my best friends are neurotic,” said Saller. “Who wants to know a bunch of calm and happy people?”

Quoting the New York Times, she said, “Life today is ‘less violent, less cruel, and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.’ When it comes to stress, many of us, the privileged, choose it. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for what’s bugging copy editors,” said Saller, to laughs. Although we’re used to hearing about the debates between prescriptivists and “promiscuous” descriptivists, Saller enjoys defining a third category: assertionists, a term coined byEugene Volohk, describing people who take pride in “witless, raging allegiance” to grammar rules and style. Many copy editors see their jobs as knowing the rules and imposing them, but Saller reminded us that “style rules exist to serve us; we don’t exist to serve them.”

Assertionists who write into the Chicago Style Q&A with style and grammar questions “are tormented by what they see as declining standards,” said Saller. But because most adults stopped learning grammar after they left high school, they may not be aware that some rules are outdated and that some rules were never rules at all. People ask, “When did this rule change?,” as if a single authoritative person or organization were responsible for governing the English language. “Language is wonderfully messy,” said Saller. “Evolution in English is the ultimate in crowdsourcing.”

Many style rules are arbitrary, and understanding a rule is not the same as being able to recite them. Style rules give us an efficient way to be consistent, but sometimes they turn out to be inconvenient. “When rules conflict, you probably have to break a rule—and that’s OK,” said Saller. “Apply the power of knowing when to break a rule to help writers to achieve great writing.”

“It is rarely correct to robotically follow a rule,” she added. “This kind of dependency wastes time, stunts learning, and does little to help the reader.”

Beyond knowing the rules and when to break them, editors must also stay on top of technology. “Editors who live in the past also do harm,” said Saller, adding, “Hating technology is a cliché. Technology is not making you stupid or lonely or hyper (although I will grant that it can make you homicidal).” But if you are representing yourself as a professional editor, your primary tools have to be up to standard. “Eventually, if you don’t refresh your skills and equipment, you’ll begin to lose work.” Never stop educating yourself, Saller suggested. You can find free resources online to learn almost anything—including how to make the most out of social media. “If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in that ocean, know that active participation is optional. You can learn plenty just by lurking.”

“There’s no downside to arming yourself with knowledge and skill,” said Saller. “You will become generous, flexible, powerful, confident and—who knows?—maybe even serene.”

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