Most of my coworkers here at Washington Mutual have no idea who I really am. They see me correcting spelling errors in press releases and removing excess punctuation from quarterly reports, and they think that's all there is to me. But behind these horn-rimmed glasses, there's a woman dreaming big dreams. I won't be stuck standardizing verb tenses in business documents my whole life. One day, I will copyedit the Great American Novel.
"Sure," you say, "along with every other detail-oriented grammarian in the country." Yes, I know how many idealistic young people dream of taking a manuscript that captures the spirit of 21st-century America and removing all of its grammatical and semantic errors. But how many of them know to omit the word "bear" when referring to koalas? How many know to change "pompom" to "pompon"?
Copyediting is a craft. A good copy editor knows the rules of punctuation, usage, and style, but a truly great copy editor knows when to break them. Macaulay's copy editor let him begin sentences with "but." JFK's copy editor knew when to let a split infinitive work its magic. You need only look at Thackeray to see the damage that overzealous elegant variation can do. Right now, there's a writer out there with a vision as vast as Mark Twain's or F. Scott Fitzgerald's. He is laboring in obscurity, working with deliberate patience. He isn't using tricks of language or pyrotechnic plot turns. He is doing the hardest work of all, the work of Melville, of Cather: He is capturing life on the page. And when the time comes, I'll be here—green pencil in hand—to remove the excess commas from that page.
With clear eyes and an unquenchable thirst for syntactical truth, I will distinguish between defining and non-defining relative clauses and use "that" and "which" appropriately. I will locate and remove the hyphen from any mention of "sky blue" the color and insert the hyphen into any place where the adjective "blue" is qualified by "sky." I will distinguish between "theism" and "deism," between "evangelism" and "evangelicalism," between "therefor" and "therefore." I will use the correct "duct tape," and not the oft-seen apocope "duck tape." The Great American Novel's editor will expect no less of me, for his house will be paying me upwards of $15 an hour, more than it paid the author himself.
To a writer who didn't strive for perfection, my corrections would seem niggling. But the author of the Great American Novel will understand that I am as essential to his book as the ink that will cover sheaf after sheaf of virgin paper.
Some people edit copy because they choose to. I copyedit because I must. It isn't merely a matter of making a living. If it were that, I would have been line editing years ago. No, I've been fascinated by the almost mathematical questions of copy since the summer of my 15th birthday, when I found a leather-bound diary hidden away in the cupboard of an old abandoned farmhouse. In the diary, a young housemaid recorded her hopes, fears, and aspirations.
That summer, I spent many hours poring over the handwritten book, pen in hand, correcting grammar and writing "sp" next to words. I urged paragraph breaks, provided omitted words, and indicated improper capitalizations with a short double-underline. I wrote "stet" in the margins when I made a mistake. Even though I knew Miss Charlotte would never see the notation, I wanted the text to be flawless.
In my mind's eye, I can see the galleys of the Great American Novel on my desk. There is no time to waste. Deadlines have been missed, for the writer has passed out on his desk many times after writing into the wee hours. But, finally, he has perfected the 23rd draft. His work is done.
I get myself a fresh cup of coffee, get out several sharpened green pencils, and adjust my noise-reduction headphones for the long task ahead. I lower my head into my cubicle. My work is just beginning.