Mary Norris started working at The New Yorker thirty-one years ago, in the editorial library, moving on to the collating department and the copy desk. Since 1993, she has been a page O.K.’er, or query proofreader. She has written for The Talk of the Town and contributes to the New Yorker books blog. She is working on a memoir about having a transsexual sibling, the legendary Baby Dee. You can read Mary’s fabulously entertaining blog : “The Alternate Side Parking Reader.”
By the way, if you want to learn more about copy editing from those who are the best in the business, check out: The New Yorker Festival (October 16-18). This year there is a master class in copy editing, on Sunday, October 18th, at 2 P.M., with Ann Goldstein, the head of the copy department; Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths; and Mary Norris. A program guide to the festival is in the issue of September 21, 2009, and online.
I want to talk to Mary about what really goes on at America’s most prestigious literary magazine.
Andy: Mary, I understand that you often write some extremely well-received books under the pseudonym: “Malcolm Gladwell.” Is this true?
Mary: Hah! Are you trying to get me in trouble? Malcolm Gladwell is an incredible phenomenon. He is not a made-up composite of a writer but a real person, and though he must be a millionaire by now, amazingly, he continues to write.
Andy: Can you describe for us what a typical day is for you at The New Yorker?
Mary: The hours at The New Yorker are from ten to six, and I try to be on time, as it is embarrassing to be chronically late when you don’t have to be at the office till ten. We have a weekly schedule for closing the contents of an issue in an orderly fashion: fiction closes early in the week, critics at midweek, and the longer, more demanding pieces near the end of the week; Talk of the Town and Comment go to press last, on Friday. The head of the copy department, Ann Goldstein, parcels out the week’s tasks, matching up who is available with what needs to be done. If the lineup changes, we readjust.
There are four full-time O.K.’ers, as well as a team of about six proofreaders, some of whom act as O.K.’ers when we need them. Basically, on the day a piece closes, you read it, and give the editor your query proof, which will also contain the queries of a second proofreader, and after the editor has entered all the acceptable changes and sent the new version to the Makeup Department, you read that new version. There will sometimes be a “closing meeting,” when the editor, the writer, the fact checker, and the O.K.’er sit down together over the page proof and discuss final changes. The O.K.’er then copies these changes onto a pristine proof called the Reader’s (to keep the paper trail) and enters them into the electronic file, and sends the revised piece back to Makeup. The next version is read against the Reader’s proof by another layer of proofreaders, the night foundry readers. The system is full of redundancy and safety nets.
Andy: Wow! That is even more proofreading than I do on this blog. You do copy editing there. What is a copy editor? How is it different from a line editor?
Mary: The job descriptions at The New Yorker are different from those at book publishing houses and other magazines. We have a copy desk, and the job of the copy editor is to do the first pass on a piece, when the manuscript is “set up,” that is, set in type for general distribution. At this stage, the copy editor makes minimal changes, in spelling and punctuation, to conform to New Yorker style. You may have noticed that we spell “theatre” the British way, reversing the “er” to “re,” and double consonants before suffixes (“travelled,” rather than “traveled”); we use the diaeresis in words like “coöperate” and “reëlect”; we prefer the serial comma; we spell out round numbers, even big ones. The copy editor does not make any interpretive changes.
Next (and you won’t find this job anyplace else) a piece is “Goulded.” This used to be the domain of the legendary Eleanor Gould Packard, a grammarian and a genius whose old office I now occupy, though I am neither a grammarian nor a genius (except for real estate: the office has a great view). One of the query proofreaders, on a day when she is not O.K.’ing a piece, reads the galleys of a piece that is scheduled for a future issue, fixing spelling and punctuation, of course, but also making more subtle suggestions. Query proofreaders at The New Yorker are probably more like line editors at other publications. We go over the piece twice. We fix danglers. We try to improve the sentences, making sure that the author is saying what he or she intends to say. Eleanor Gould was big on clarity, and I have absorbed some of that. Basically, you’re giving the piece a really close reading.
When a piece is scheduled to run in the magazine, we read it again, twice. As I said above, in addition to the O.K.’er, each piece has a second reader, to back up the O.K.’er. The O.K.’er then has the duty of reading the piece yet again, to make sure no mistakes have been introduced, and also to smooth things out. Sometimes a fact checker’s language does not blend in with the writer’s voice, although the checkers work closely with the writers. Any material added by the writer or the checker has to be copy-edited. This takes as long as it takes, and we don’t rush out at 6 P.M.
Andy: I have always heard that The New Yorker had extremely rigorous standards for copy editing and fact checking. (Or perhaps I should say: “cöpy ёditing”) Can you talk about that? How is your job copy editing different from, say, that of a copy editor at the National Enquirer?
Mary: I don’t know what it’s like to be a copy editor at the National Enquirer. The main thing here is to respect the writer. The writers don’t have to do everything we want them to—we make suggestions. The ideal would be to give an editor a proof and have all your suggestions meet with approval. Sometimes you notice that your suggestions have not been taken, so if something bothers you, you try again. Sometimes you wear them down, sometimes you cave.
I have been on both sides of the process, as a writer and as a query proofreader. Being edited sometimes felt like having my bones reset on a torture rack. I don’t ever want to do that to a writer, but I probably have from time to time. “What is this, the adverb police?” a writer who shall remain nameless once said in my earshot. “You betcha,” I wanted to say. I don’t remove every word ending in “ly,” but I like economy and concision.
Andy: The New Yorker has such an iconic status in the literary world. When Vicky Raab quoted me in the New Yorker blog, I went around for weeks telling my friends I had become a “New Yorker writer.” Does the office reflect this kind of exalted status? Or is the workplace like everywhere else? You know, people complaining about the bad plumbing, that sort of thing.
Mary: Bad plumbing! How did you know? There is someone who trashes the ladies’ room regularly, and we can’t figure out who it is.
When you have worked at a place for a while, it is bound to lose its mystique. But as someone who has occasionally been published in The New Yorker, I cannot deny that it is always a thrill to have a piece accepted. You belong to the same tradition as some great, great writers. And although sometimes you are just churning your way through the week, other times you’re getting paid to read something great. We are probably all in this business because we like to read, right? So what could be better?
Andy: I have always imagined that most of the real workers at the magazine, the guys who don’t do the featured stories, are writers in their other lives. Probably pretty good writers. Is that true? Is TNY a good gig for a writer? Connections and all that stuff? Entrée to parties at the Hamptons?
Mary: You’re right there. Many of the people on the editorial staff have the will to write: they’re poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, journalists. I have a novel in my bottom drawer, if you’d like to take a look at it. I guess what we have is access: I can e-mail the editor-in-chief, or talk to an editor if I have an idea. But, obviously, the staff writers are given preference, and you are competing with them just like anyone else. Sometimes people leave The New Yorker to take writing jobs elsewhere.
I have never been invited to a party in the Hamptons, but maybe I’m just not working the connections assiduously enough. One of the perks is grabbing books off the book bench—review copies that get sent to the magazine (there’s no way we can review all the books that get sent here). Recently I asked Roger Angell to sign a copy of his 2008 Christmas poem for my second cousin Dennis Kucinich (rhymes with “spinach”), whom I met at a family reunion. Another perk is getting to hobnob with the cartoonists. When a copy of the magazine lands on my desk on Monday morning, the first thing I do is still to flip through it looking at the cartoons.
Andy: You have worked under William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Do you have a sense that there was a “golden age” of TNY or are we living in it now?
Mary: Hmmm. Sometimes when I have occasion to look back at an issue from the Shawn days, I am moved by the beauty of those vintage magazines: the lines of type were fitted character by character, the hot type is very alive, the black-and-white columns of print have a classic purity. Bob Gottlieb was careful to maintain that, though he introduced some changes. Tina Brown brought in color and photography, and shortened the length of pieces (and probably the attention span of the general reader). I think that what David Remnick has done is bring his newsman’s nose to the job. Remnick has succeeded in making The New Yorker a vital part of the national conversation. We seem to have found our voice after 9/11.
On the other hand, you find fewer quirky pieces that may not be particularly newsworthy but that readers love. For instance, “Uncle Tungsten,” by Oliver Sacks. (I still regret making him spell “sulfur” our way, with the “f,” when he wanted to spell it the old-fashioned British way, “sulphur,” which he’d grown up with.) Ian Frazier’s two-part piece on his travels in Siberia is a good recent example of a beautiful, funny, interesting, old-fashioned piece of writing. A good writer can make you care about anything.
Andy: Is your job satisfying?
Mary: The thing I like most about my job is that it draws on my entire background. I know a little Italian and Greek that sometimes come in handy. I once caught a mistake in Middle English (in a piece by Andrew Porter yet)—the only time my graduate degree has ever had a practical use. I know the name of the airport in Cleveland, and that can be useful when you’re reading a piece of fiction by a Southern writer who is making things up about northern Ohio. It’s redemptive to have a practical use for the arcana of Roman Catholicism.
Andy: What qualities make a person a good candidate for copy editing?
Mary: Self-doubt. It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance! It also helps to have read widely (and well), and to have noticed, while you’re at it, how words are spelled. Of course you have to be attentive to details—you have to be a bit of a nitpicker yet be constructive in your nit-picking. You have to love language. And not be too proud to run spell-check.
Andy: I hope this isn’t too naughty to ask, but can you tell me the three biggest style errors that you have gotten from New Yorker writers?
Mary: When I first got into the copy-editing game, I wondered why writers persisted in the error of their ways when they must have seen the changes that the editors made. Finally I figured out that it isn’t the writers’ job to style their own copy. For writers, having to think about those things is constricting. Plus, if they did, it would put us out of a job.
But here are a few things that have irked or puzzled me.
- There was a writer who spelled “annihilate” with just one “n.” And he used it in every other sentence. This was back in the days before word processors, when I was in the collating department and had to prepare handwritten Reader’s proofs for the printer. I must have written the word “annihilate” four hundred times. The writer never did notice that it had two “n”s.
- One stubborn editor refused to believe that “arrhythmia” was spelled with two “r”s. This doesn’t come up often, but it is odd to have someone simply refuse to spell a word right because he thinks it looks funny. It’s almost admirable.
- The difference between “lie” and “lay” in the past tense continues to confound. It is “lie, lay, lain” (intransitive verb, meaning “to recline”) and “lay, laid, laid” (transitive verb, meaning “to set [something] down”). “Laid” is so often used incorrectly as the past tense of “lie” (as in “She laid down for a nap” [ding, ding, ding: wrong!]) that people are afraid to use it even when it’s right, so you’ll get a sentence like “She lay the stones on the grave.” It doesn’t set off so many bells, but it’s a mistake, in this case attributable to overcorrectness.
Andy: Mary, this has been fascinating. You expand this into a 50,000 word piece, and I can sell it to Knopf.
Final note: After completing this interview, I sent the text to Mary. She sent it back, hurling me into copy edit hell. I spent 3 hours correcting her edits that included caps to lower case, lower case to caps, spaces between periods and colons, assorted italics and the list goes on. This exercise was a powerful lesson, in itself, in the work of a copy editor. I’m exhausted from the experience.
Tags: alternate side parking reader, andy ross, andy ross agency, ask the agent, book publishing, copy desk, copy edit, David Remnick, eleanor gould packard, Malcolm gladwell, Mary Norris, new yorker style, o.k.'ers, proofreading, robert gottlieb, The New Yorker, tina Brown, william shawn, writing