Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Confessions of a Copy-Editor

Marissa Skudlarek is an editing tornado. 

“Eagle eyes,” my mother used to call me. This nickname may sound odd, because I’ve worn thick glasses since I was five years old, but she was referring to my talent for observation, and especially for spotting errors. I’d be reading some kids’ book, notice a typo and, frowning, show the error to my mother. “Why don’t you write a nice letter to the publisher, sweetie, and tell them what you found?” she’d say.

With a background like that – observational skills, perfectionism, and a mother who encouraged those traits – I suppose I was bound to become a copy-editor. And while I’ve tried to relax my standards a bit in this Internet age of casual communication (I don’t use capital letters on Gchat), errors in more venerable publications still bother me. Twice, I have witnessed The New Yorker print “vocal chords” instead of “vocal cords,” and each time, this makes me think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

I have now copy-edited four books in two years: two volumes of the Bay One-Acts anthology, and two volumes of the Olympians Festival anthology. Copy-editing plays, especially anthologies of plays from multiple authors, must be one of the most challenging editorial tasks there is. If you’re copy-editing, say, a nonfiction article or an academic essay, you can generally trust that the piece will be in paragraphs of several sentences each, that the author wants to adhere to standards of English grammar and punctuation, that pretty much every sentence will end with a period, etc. (Well, I don’t envy the person who had to copy-edit David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster – but most essayists are not DFW.)

Plays, though, are descriptivist, rather than prescriptivist – they reflect the way people actually talk, not the way that grammarians tell us we should talk. Before you can correct a grammatical mistake in a play, you have to determine whether it’s the author’s mistake or the character’s. When a playwright forgets the punctuation mark on the end of a line of dialogue, you can’t just assume that she wants a period to go there – what if the line should end in an ellipsis, or a dash, or an exclamation point?

Then, imagine doing that for twelve different playwrights, who all have their own idiosyncrasies and tics. For instance, some playwrights favor en-dashes and some favor the longer em-dash – both are acceptable in American English. And every playwright has her own method of dealing with stage directions (italicized and tabbed, parenthetical, or a mixture of both) and as long as the reader doesn’t get confused, that’s usually OK. But an anthology ought to have internal consistency between the plays. More than half of my job as a copy-editor involves converting parenthetical stage directions into italicized ones, or en-dashes into em-dashes. And don’t get me started on the writers who like to use hyphens instead of dashes…

I feel like copy-editing allows me to develop an incredibly intimate relationship with a writer’s words. Actors, directors, and scholars may all do in-depth analyses of the plays they work on, but do they scrutinize them at the level I do, considering every apostrophe, every comma? I hear the writer’s voice, I discern her personality in the placement of every punctuation mark. I learn which writers favor elaborate stage directions and which are minimalists; which writers sit at their computers and pound out dialogue so fast that they neglect punctuation, and which ones meticulously place every semicolon.

Because of my perfectionism, I also find that I’m a de facto fact checker in addition to being a copy-editor. I love this part of the job, since it lets me make use of some of the random knowledge that clutters up my head. All information is useful for a copy-editor. For the second volume of the Olympians book, I was editing a play where a character said that Election Day 2008 was on November 2. But I remembered that I donated to the Obama campaign in 2008 and, in return, got a T-shirt that said “VOTE NOV 4TH” in big letters. I emailed the playwright and asked him if he wanted me to change the date in the text to “November 4.”

Or you could decry me for wasting time on fashion and pop-culture websites, but if I didn’t pay attention to stuff like that, how would I know that Zooey Deschanel spells her first name in that Salingeresque fashion, rather than the more common “Zoe”? (“Zoe” to “Zooey” is another mistake I can recall correcting in the course of my copy-editing projects.)

I even find that being a copy-editor has made me a better writer. The book designers/layout editors I work with always claim that it’s necessary to strip all formatting (e.g. italics) from a play before they do the layout and make the proof copy. Therefore, one necessary evil of copy-editing is going through the proof copy, comparing it to the playwright’s draft, and replacing the italics that were removed. This exercise has convinced me that playwrights don’t need italics half as often as they think they do. Sure, sometimes the italics provide much-needed clarification by indicating which word the actor should stress. But most of the time, the italics don’t seem to serve any discernable purpose and the line isn’t measurably improved by adding them back.

So, copy-editing my play Pleiades for the Olympians anthology, I’ve elected not to replace some of the italics that got stripped away. The climactic scene of the play is dramatic enough as it is – littering it with italics just makes it looks like I don’t trust the actors to play the scene with the appropriate intensity. Italics, punctuation, formatting, and all of those other details only get you so far. At some point, the words have to stand on their own.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, arts writer, and copy-editor. If you found any spelling or grammatical mistakes in this column, please tell her about them in the comments.