Friday, June 8, 2007

Subtext, Context, Pretext, and the Oxford Comma

Although I am a skilled content editor and a better-than-ordinary copyeditor, the two disciplines veer away from one another before my very eyes to the point where it is fair to say that I have natural, enhanced skills as a content editor and must rely on my memory for copyediting.

As Liz Kuball would put it, I content edit without thinking; I need to be alert, on guard for copyediting. Nothing I do while copyediting surprises me. In content editing, I constantly surprise myself and the author.

Content editing is the literary equivalent of removing throat clearing and, as Sally would put it, dumb logic. Content editing wants to emphasize the uniqueness of the author's voice and vision. Copyediting is pure mechanics. 

 When I edit an author for content, I become an actor and accordingly act like the author. As a copy editor, I become a robot and emulate such style guides as The Chicago Manual of Style, The Cambridge-Oxford Conventions for Printers, The Associated Press Style Guide, or The New York Times Style Guide.

I have written and edited enough book text that
The Chicago Manual of Style is nearly embedded as muscle memory, nearly being translated as my recourse to look something up about once a month. My column for the Montecito Journal is another matter; I have to remember to render book titles in quotes rather than italics. That is only the beginning. The Journal generously allows me a convention variously called the serial comma (a,b, and c as opposed to a, b and c)the Oxford comma, and the Montecito comma.

Such things may seem dumb but they are instrumental in the splendid and tricky process called communication. Graphic artists have to worry about light, pigmentation, and objective standards for discussing colors with specificity. Musicians have to be concerned about tempo and pitch. Writers at minimum have to deal with subtext, context, intent, extent.

My reference desk:

A well-thumbed copy of CMOS, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. (To show you how extensive matters of usage are, it is quite possible that I have violated style convention by not representing CMOS in italic, even though it is not the full title but rather an affectionate acronym. After all, titles, even affectionate ones, have their conventions too.

An equally well-thumbed 3rd edition of The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language.

The New York Times Style Guide.

Microsoft Word 2003 For Dummies.
No, it is not laziness or error on my part, Wylie, the publisher, has registered For Dummies rather than for Dummies as its trademark, making me feel smug and superior for having noticed in a recent edition of Mother Jones the use of the lower case for.

The New York Public Library Guide to Style and Usage.It is probably a good thing that I cannot justify the expense of The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged) or, indeed, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (all twenty-nine volumes) because I would get even less work done than I do now.

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