The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago

by Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago, 2009): 127pp, £9 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 226 73425 5.

Reviewed by Averill Buchanan

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If you've ever logged on to The Chicago Manual of Style Online's Q&A, you'll have sampled the kind of grammar and style questions that Carol Fisher Saller, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, deals with daily: where to put commas, when to hyphenate, how to use apostrophes correctly. Each year she fields over 3,000 such queries, ranging from the mundane to the truly bizarre, and she is fondly addressed as the 'Grammar Goddess' by those who visit the site regularly.

Superstition and pet compulsions

But The Subversive Copy Editor is no rule book or style guide. Prompted by the anxiety she saw lurking behind many of the queries, Saller instead offers therapy to editors, hauling us out of the details of the text itself and helping us to get some perspective.

Life is too short, she insists, to get wound up about who's right and who's wrong, as long as the meaning is clear to the reader. Saller's 'subversive' editor is prepared to think outside the rules, rules that sometimes border on superstitions and are often nothing more than pet compulsions.

See beyond the adversarial view

But before you all rush off to burn your Butcher's, note that Saller isn't advocating that we scrap the rules altogether. Rather, she encourages us to see beyond the adversarial view – correct vs incorrect, author vs editor – to adopt a more flexible approach to what are, after all, often merely matters of style.

In a friendly, informal way, Saller offers advice on managing deadlines and difficult authors, maintaining computer records and collegial relationships, and on knowing when a text has been edited enough. The book is written primarily with the in-house editor in mind, but it's just as relevant to freelancers, who get a chapter of their very own.


How liberating to hear from an experienced expert that it's OK to break the rules sometimes, that good editors have made mistakes – and survived. An added bonus is Saller's self-deprecating wit, so refreshing in a profession often perceived to be full of humourless pedants. And what makes The Subversive Copy Editor all the more delightful is that it's perfectly proofed. Put down your red pen, relax and enjoy.

You can get a weekly fix of Saller on her blog The Subversive Copy Editor.

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