The Editorial Hobgoblin

When we’re going to publish a manuscript, we read it and think about how clearly the author has expressed his or her ideas, how well the story flows, whether something’s missing, and so on. Our suggestions to the author resemble baking tips: plump it up here, smooth it out there, maybe you should patch this hole, are you sure you want it to be so sweet? Most authors appreciate this attention to their work, even if they’ve already edited and revised so much that the thought of one more look makes them sick. The results are usually gratifying all around. That’s the developmental editing stage.

And then it’s time for copyediting, a word I always have to look up in the dictionary to see if it’s closed, hyphenated, or open. Why is “copyedit” closed and “copy editor” open? Who knows, but that’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says, and that’s the standard we use in order to be consistent about such things.

I heard that Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and I wondered if he was alluding to his editor, but it turns out he was thinking of bigger fish—statesmen and philosophers and members of the clergy. Still, when I’m copyediting there’s a chorus in the back of my mind, my own personal Raelettes, singing “Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?” What sustains me is the faith that well-constructed sentences and consistent treatment, within a given work, of compound words, capitalization, abbreviations, numbers (spell out or use numerals?), serial commas, use of italics, and many other things you might not want to know about will allow you, the reader, to glide happily along, uninterrupted by semiconscious confusion over annoying little details.

Is it “southern” or “Southern” California? “Gold Rush” or “gold rush”? An “overly-cautious” or “overly cautious” editor? These aren’t points of grammar—they’re about style, though not in the manner of, say, Lady Gaga—and they don’t have solid answers. The Chicago Manual of Style, our editing bible and that of many other publishers, helps. Sometimes we make our own calls. To help us remember them and to leave a record for the proofreader, we make up a “style sheet” for each book. The format I use lists things alphabetically within such categories as “compound words,” “punctuation,” “spelling,” and “usage.”

And that’s what I’ve been leading up to. The style sheets are like found poetry. I make long lists of compound words on them because I don’t trust myself to remember the ones the dictionary that I disagree about, and I don’t want to have to look them up again. The list for each book is unique and highlights the contents in a way that always surprises me. Consider this one—short because I just started the book—for East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, a book of essays by Vietnamese American journalist Andrew Lam that will come out in spring 2011:

barbed wire
comic book
fairy tale (n.); fairy-tale (adj.)
high-tech (adj.)
kung fu (open)
rice fields

As you can see, this lively book will take you to many places, and the routes are often unpredictable.


  1. I love Jeannine’s poem!And I can’t believe that e-mail is closed with no hyphen. Poetry always opens your eyes to things, I suppose.

  2. says

    The editorial hobgoblin.. Awful 🙂

  3. says

    The editorial hobgoblin.. Keen 🙂

  4. says

    The editorial hobgoblin.. Bully 🙂

  5. says

    The editorial hobgoblin.. Reposted it 🙂

  6. says

    The editorial hobgoblin.. Not so bad 🙂