Yuka Igarashi has a nice piece at Granta on a topic close to my heart; the whole thing is worth reading, but I’ll quote the peroration:

There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.
As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.
Ultimately, though, I don’t actually think it diminishes the pleasures of reading. The idea of a pure reading experience is a myth, anyway, because purity is a myth. I’m not willing to believe that attending to details or reading very carefully is ever a bad thing. A sentence is, in fact, a machine, an intricate and delicately balanced equation; good copy-editing – good editing more generally – is a way to help a writer get the equation so exactly right that it starts to not seem like one at all. Many times a day, I’ll be hunched over a paragraph, wondering whether a particular pronoun has the correct antecedent, whether one independent clause should be dependent, and suddenly I’ll be caught off guard by a stunning turn of phrase or find myself jolted by a perfectly articulated insight. The power that writing can have, at these times, far outstrips the power it would have were I merely a so-called casual reader. I might be a freak, and ruined for life, but I’m resigned to – no, happy with – this fate.


  1. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s description of how his perceptions changed after becoming a riverboat pilot (Life on the Mississippi).

  2. Well, Igarashi, is it a machine or an equation? Plain different things. And another thing: it’s a myth that purity is a myth: it is, perhaps, an ideal; or, if the maths analogy must be pursued, an asymptote. You can get ever closer without quite reaching it.

  3. Even more apropos, I think, is this passage from the Lord Peter Wimsey story “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face”:

    ‘Now, when a painter paints a portrait of anybody,’ went on Wimsey, ‘that person’s face is never the same to him again. It’s like – what shall I say? Well, it’s like the way a gunner, say, looks at a landscape where he happens to be
    posted. He doesn’t see it as a landscape. He doesn’t see it as a thing of magic beauty, full of sweeping lines and lovely colour. He sees it as so much cover, so many landmarks to aim by, so many gun-emplacements. And when the war is over and he goes back to it, he will still see it as cover and landmarks and gun emplacements. It isn’t a landscape any more. It’s a war map.’
    ‘I know that,’ said Inspector Winterbottom. ‘I was a gunner myself.’
    ‘A painter gets just the same feeling of deadly familiarity with every line of a face he’s once painted,’ pursued Wimsey. ‘And, if it’s a face he hates, he hates it with a new and more irritable hatred. It’s like a defective barrel-organ, everlastingly grinding out the same old maddening tune, and making the same damned awful wrong note every time the barrel goes round.’

  4. One of the things I love about getting ebooks in revisable (typically RTF) format from Baen Books is that when I see a typo, I whip open my editor (Microsoft Word will do, though there are many alternatives), fix the typo, and press Save — and I never have to see that typo again, ever. Ah, the power.

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