Mary Norris: Sovereign of Spelling, Empress of the Em Dash

Mary Norris’s first book, Between You and Me: Confessions of Comma Queen, shines a spotlight on copyediting as an urgent and beautiful part of writing and publishing. The book is fun and full of attitude, making light of the intense nit-pickiness that comes with a copyeditor’s territory. She writes, “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.” Throughout the book — part memoir, part grammar and style handbook — Norris explores the most common faults she found copyediting during her time at the New Yorker.

Naturally, a book about grammar written by a copyeditor will assert the importance — the article making or breaking potential, even! — of just one misplaced comma. But less expected and more intriguing is the joy Norris finds in copyediting. To Norris, finding mistakes and correcting them is a wonderful puzzle, a job as delightful as it is necessary. For Norris, copyediting grew from a job into a lifestyle; she writes, “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.”

This book struck a chord here at CambridgeEditors because it reflects a balance we, too, see in editing. Yes, a superb professional edit can make all the difference in your novel’s publication, your application’s acceptance, or your business proposal’s success. And our desire to help writers put their best foot forward certainly plays a role in our editing. But we’re also passionate about what we do — our editors work hard, but they also love their work. Good editors must care about their work and enjoy it — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be good editors at all. We’re lucky that we work with editors whose passion mirrors their talent, for whom copyediting is one essential facet of a rich, full understanding of writing.

In an article for the New Yorker wherein she discusses her book, Norris writes that copyediting “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.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.


-Charlotte Goddu


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