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Roberta Basarbolieva's
Compelling Edits

  • Writer's pictureRoberta Basarbolieva

Book review: The Subversive Copy Editor


The Subversive Copy Editor cover

Carol Fisher Saller is one of the biggest names in copyediting. Her experience as a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, chief copyeditor of the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and editor of the CMOS Online Q&A makes her one ridiculously knowledgeable and skilled copyeditor, whose book is considered one of the bibles of the trade, together with Dreyer’s English and Amy Einsohn’s The Copyediting Handbook.


The book flows confidently and comfortably, and feels like a coffee date with a friend, rather than a key text for a whole industry. Saller is self-deprecating and funny, and her honest anecdotes turn her mishaps into easy lessons for the reader. She gives tips for editors who function as freelancers, employees, and colleagues, but she also has a chapter on helping authors work with editors, because the author-editor relationship has to be developed from both sides. That last point is what she calls being subversive: putting the text and the author before the job.


The book contains a whole load of good advice. Below I’ve summarized what I found most relevant as simple-to-follow tips for editors:

  • When dealing with clients, especially at first contact, show yourself to be careful, transparent, and flexible. Most authors fear editing because they have seen mistakes introduced into their texts, or they don’t understand editors’ changes, or they have only met overbearing editors.

  • Don’t overexplain – make the author feel like they are important to you, but don’t give them unnecessary information about your refusals or delays.

  • Be efficient when it comes to the myriad repetitive tasks that editing involves – automate, delegate, re-evaluate. Work smarter, not harder.

  • Don’t be overconsistent – go for regional consistency, rather than automatically changing everything according to a style guide. Sometimes rules clash, and following them mindlessly can, ironically, make your text look inconsistent.

  • Manage your guidelines – prioritize, organize (use lists for the short term, schedules for the long term and multiple users, and logs for completed work), and documentize everything. So when a client comes to you with a scheduling complaint, you can show them your emails and prior arrangements to support your decisions.

  • Take responsibility and learn from your mistakes.


And remember: “The document does not have to be perfect.” While ideal documents can rarely be achieved, you are also bound by time and financial constraints. Do your job in the best way you can within responsible limits.

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