Amy Einsohn and the Making of The Copyeditor's Handbook
February 17, 2000
"It's official: I'm too liberal," Amy Einsohn declared. She wasn't talking about her political views, but her copyediting philosophy. Einsohn's "radical" approach to copyediting came to light during the writing and editing of her book, The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, which will be published in April by the University of California Press.
A veteran freelancer and copyediting course instructor, Einsohn spoke to a packed audience about how the Handbook came to be, gave an overview of the book's main topics, revealed what it was like as an editor to be edited, and expounded on her "subversive" views.
Einsohn hadn't originally intended to write a book. For one thing, her life as a freelance copyeditor didn't afford much free time for writing. But she couldn't ignore the fact that there wasn't, in her eyes, a good textbook for beginning copyeditors. During her years teaching copyediting at UC Berkeley Extension and Editcetera, she had found that books on copyediting tended to emphasize rules while failing to address the intellectual aspects of copyediting, "all the interesting things besides periods and semicolons."
Einsohn originally pictured The Copyeditor's Handbook selling shrink-wrapped with The Chicago Manual of Style. But when the University of Chicago Press rejected her manuscript, she resigned herself to visualizing her book sitting next to the Chicago Manual, if not on bookstore shelves, then on copyeditors' desks.
The Handbook, with its emphasis on the practical, real-life aspects of being a copyeditor, attempts to fill the gap left by the Chicago Manual, the AP Stylebook, Words into Type, and other editing guides. In 550 pages, it covers everything from punctuation to reference books to on-screen editing. It contains 15 exercises with answers and line-by-line commentary, including reasons for not making certain edits. It also discusses contentious grammar issues, including subject/verb agreement, split infinitives, and the "everyone...their" conundrum, and goes beyond grammar to explore expository style and expression.
An intriguing aspect of the book is its unconventional theme, expressed by Einsohn as "Sometimes good enough is good enough." Her 20 years of copyediting (with a specialty in corporate communications) have convinced her that good editors know how to discern "what is acceptable," while novice editors—still held captive by "the rules"—spend too much time and effort editing the wrong things. She agrees with Joseph Williams, who counts clarity, consistency, and concern for writers among the trademarks of good editing. "It's not a game of 'Gotcha!'" she said, or "of proving my way is right."
What was it like to be on the other side of the red pencil? Einsohn learned that queries take an awful lot of time for an author to read and often are not that important in the long run. She also realized how easy it is for an editor to misinterpret an author's meaning.
The experience also brought her face to face with issues of correctness and propriety. As an editor who does not blindly adhere to the Chicago Manual, she didn't agree with some edits that followed Chicago to the letter. The same went for spelling and usage preferences based on orthodox interpretations of the dictionary.
Ultimately, there was a lot of back-and-forth about whether the Handbook should reflect the highest level of style or one copyeditor's real-world experience. Einsohn has often found that, given tight deadlines and budgetary restrictions, "sometimes acceptable is good enough."
This is where the "liberal" label comes into play. Einsohn encourages editors to know the rules, but then take into account "all that is acceptable" before setting red pen to paper.