Confessions of a Comma Queen | The New Yorker
Then I was allowed to work on the copydesk. It changed the way I read prose—I was paid to find mistakes, and it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on. I had a paperback edition of Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” that was so riddled with typos that it almost ruined Flem Snopes for me. But, as I relaxed on the copydesk, I was sometimes even able to enjoy myself. There were writers who weren’t very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes. There were competent writers on interesting subjects who were just careless enough in their spelling and punctuation to keep a girl occupied. And there were writers whose prose came in so highly polished that I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to read them: John Updike, Pauline Kael, Mark Singer, Ian Frazier! In a way, these were the hardest, because the prose lulled me into complacency. They transcended the office of the copy editor. It was hard to stay alert for opportunities to meddle in an immaculate manuscript, yet if you missed something you couldn’t use that as an excuse. The only thing to do was style the spelling, and even that could be fraught. Oliver Sacks turned out to be attached to the spelling of “sulphur” and “sulphuric” that he remembered from his chemistry experiments as a boy. (The New Yorker spells it less romantically: “sulfur,” “sulfuric.”)
When Pauline Kael typed “prevert” instead of “pervert,” she meant “prevert” (unless she was reviewing something by Jacques Prévert). Luckily, she was kind, and if you changed it she would just change it back and stet it without upbraiding you. Kael revised up until closing, and though we lackeys resented writers who kept changing “doughnut” to “coffee cake” then back to “doughnut” and then “coffee cake” again, because it meant more work for us, Kael’s changes were always improvements. She approached me once with a proof in her hand. She couldn’t figure out how to fix something, and I was the only one around. She knew me from chatting in the ladies’ room on the eighteenth floor. I looked at the proof and made a suggestion, and she was delighted. “You helped me!” she gasped.
I was on the copydesk when John McPhee’s pieces on geology were set up. I tried to keep my head. There was not much to do. McPhee was like John Updike, in that he turned in immaculate copy. Really, all I had to do was read. I’d heard that McPhee compared his manuscript with the galleys, so anything The New Yorker did he noticed. I just looked up words in the dictionary to check the spelling (which was invariably correct, but I had to check) and determined whether compound words were hyphenated, whether hyphenated words should be closed up or printed as two words, or whether I should stet the hyphen. It was my province to capitalize the “i” in Interstate 80, hyphenate I-80, and lowercase “the interstate.”
That was more than thirty years ago. And it has now been more than twenty years since I became a page O.K.’er—a position that exists only at The New Yorker, where you query-proofread pieces and manage them, with the editor, the author, a fact checker, and a second proofreader, until they go to press. An editor once called us prose goddesses; another job description might be comma queen. Except for writing, I have never seriously considered doing anything else.
One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience. The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.