1. As a copy editor, you get to see written material that spans all contexts. Have you noticed any grammatical errors that seem to be common in all of them?
Oh, yes, whether in fiction or technical writing, I do tend to see the same errors over and over: compound verbs that are not parallel in form, sentence fragments or run-ons, misuse of the apostrophe and comma, confusing “like” with “such as,” and I could go on.
In fact, most copy editors make the same corrections so frequently that there are automated ways to take care of many of them in programs such as Microsoft Word.
It’s very important, though, to distinguish between typical grammatical errors and generally poor writing. A good writer can still make some of these errors.
2. If you could give people one tip to make their writing better, what would it be?
It’s what I always told my students in the 25 years I taught writing: Don’t be afraid!
Don’t think that the first draft has to be the best one; in fact, consider it the first rehearsal. Just write and let your ideas flow, and then go back and work with them, massaging and manipulating them, reorganizing and restating them until they get you where you wanted to go in the first place.
This leads to a second tip I can’t omit: Have at least a rough plan so that you know where you want to end up.
Polishing comes last. Too many writers are stifled by trying to write “correctly” the first time.
3. What is the most unusual copy that you have edited?
I can’t really say that one text is more unusual than another, just different, from highly technical computer programming jargon that I had to teach myself along the way (with gracious praise from the author) to slam poetry.
But I have edited some extremely interesting manuscripts. One I found most compelling was the personal memoir of the South Vietnamese Minister of State in charge of negotiations at the Paris Peace Talks in 1975 and political prisoner of North Vietnam in Saigon until 1980. Another was a narrative recounting by individuals at the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. These were historical, but I’ve also highly enjoyed editing quirky works, such as a philosophical treatise on culture that taught me about epiphenomenon and qualia.
4. Do you have any interesting stories to share about sentence diagramming?
I was hired to diagram a poem called the "constructivist manifesto" (aka "realist manifesto") written in 1920 by Russian artist Naum Gabo. It has 50 or so sentences, some very complex, some simple.
After the sentences were diagrammed, they would be laser-cut out of aluminum to form a large sculpture installation for a museum in Moscow. Perfection was an absolute!
I had the help of an expert colleague for some of the trickier sentences, and I seriously underestimated my time and effort. Nevertheless, it was fun, in a perverse way! The project is still awaiting presentation.
5. As an editor, do you think that knowing sentence diagramming has made it easier to check grammar?
Believe it or not, I was never taught diagramming in school; I learned it myself as needed over the years, studying it diligently when necessary.
But I think I had an intuitive knowledge of grammar, having grown up around people who spoke correctly and having read much by great writers, and thus for me, diagramming was an exercise in producing visually what I already knew were semantic connections. Knowing it now does help me explain what I’m doing when a client asks, which they sometimes do.
6. Who do you think needs to use a copy editor?
Everyone! We are not capable of even proofing our own work no matter how good a writer we may be, and most of us are not as good as we think we are.
7. Random Question: You have three grandchildren. What are a couple of your favorite things to do with them?
Oh, my favorite subject!
If we can’t be at the beach, I absolutely love being outdoors at home with them, letting them help me in the garden, watching them play, or pushing the little ones on the swings. When the days get nice in the spring and summer, you won’t find us inside until it’s dark.