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From the Archives

Barbara Wallraff and the art of copy editing

The noted copy editor and author discusses the art of editing and the sanctity of getting it right.

Spring 2019


Barbara Wallraff is an accomplished and deeply experienced editor and writer. Her talents in copy editing led her to publish a national bestseller entitled Word Court, as well as two other highly successful trade books, Your Own Words and Word Fugitives. After graduating from Antioch College with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy, she went on to be an editor at the Boston Phoenix. After five years at the Phoenix, she became an editor and columnist at The Atlantic, where she started “Word Court,” a column in which she would settle arguments over disputed words or phrases, and “Word Fugitives,” in which readers would coin words that other readers requested and Wallraff would select the best new words. Following twenty-six years at The Atlantic as a senior editor and a stint as a syndicated columnist for King Features syndicate, she has worked as a freelance editor for clients including MIT Technology Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, and The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts. Most recently, she has been published by Bedford/St. Martin’s for two college-level textbooks, Joining the Conversation and In Conversation, which are writer’s guidebooks that she co-wrote with Mike Palmquist. Wallraff was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Katie Battaglino ’19.

Mount Hope: What brought you to this work of copy editing and where did you start in this profession?

Barbara Wallraff: Well, it came very naturally out of my parents caring about language. I always liked to write, and it was pretty clear, early on, when I was trying to get on my feet in the working world, that it was a lot easier to get a job as an editor than as a writer. And I think a number of us who went into copy editing realized that we would starve to death if we wrote, because we’re slow writers. But you can process a lot of copy, and I’m a very efficient editor by now.

MH: What drives your passion for copy editing? Is it a mix of elements?

BW: Well, I’ve been more in love with copy editing at different points of my life. I guess I’ve gotten a little tired of it by now. But I always felt that the mission was—and this was The Atlantic’s mission, too—to help people say competently, and make as good a case as possible for, whatever it is they wanted to tell you. I think there’s one point of being a copy editor that’s just about making sure it’s punctuated correctly and that kind of thing—pushing the commas around to do just that. I’ve just never been able to do that. I have to read what is being said, engage with it, and then see if it makes sense. I think an important part of the job is, if it doesn’t make sense, you’re supposed to say so. And you can learn little phrases like, “Is it just me or does this not follow from what you said above?” in a way to be inoffensive about it, or if you’ve got a case to be made, to let me be your first, most critical and most helpful reader.

MH: Similarly, what do you feel are the pleasures and challenges of copy editing?

BW: The pleasures are partly what you don’t have to scramble around and do. If you want to be a writer, you have to go and find a topic, you’re probably going to start out as a freelancer, and you’re going to get rejected five times as many times as you get accepted. (As an editor) you come in, there’s a pile of work on your desk, you make it better, and then you go home. That’s pleasing. And it’s great to work with writers you admire. One of the wonderful things about The Atlantic was that there were many really cool writers coming through there: Philip Roth, Howard Gardner, and many others. So you get to see all these different writers. When you’re right down there in someone’s prose, line by line, word by word, you begin to be inside their mind in a way. I could tell you who wasn’t very intelligent. They may have been well-informed, but they weren’t very intelligent—or they were mean-spirited. You get to know these people in a very intimate way, and that’s a lot of fun. Particularly if it’s writers you admire.

I never found any correspondence at all between how skilled a writer was and how much pushback they’d give you on what your suggestions were. There were people like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was a famous stylist, a political writer, who said, “Oh. Thank you. Thank you. Love that.” I believe Anthony Burgess once said of me, “Who is that woman?” And they liked what I did for them. Then there were other good writers who were really, “You just leave me alone.” Also, we had a lot of youngish writers with interesting ideas, and some of them could be the most difficult. They’d say, “Oh. You’re changing my meaning.” My response would be, “Well, you know what? I’m not trying to change your meaning. That’s what I thought you meant. So if that’s not what you meant, and I—who have been paid to help you—misunderstand, let’s not revert to your original wording. Let’s say it in a way that I go, ‘Oh. I see.’” 

MH: Do you feel that one of the biggest challenges is having pushback on your edits because they don’t see their writing needing work?

BW: Well, before I worked at The Atlantic, I was the lifestyle editor at the Boston Phoenix, a paper that kind of degraded over the years. It was a hip young people’s weekly newspaper. At that level, a lot of people, one, aren’t very good writers, and two, aren’t getting help from very good editors. So, we had to kind of calm them down at The Atlantic. Like, “No. Really. You’re going to look so much better. You’re going to look so fabulous in print. You will hardly believe it.” One of the things I’m very proud of is that it seemed like writers were happy with my work and thought that I was being helpful. There’s a little bit of psychology to that. If their grammar is all messed up, wait until you’ve got them just dead to rights where it’s like, “Oh, my God. They’ve written ‘there is’ and then put three things as a predicate—or no, that’s actually the subject in the other position. But wait until you’ve really got them and get them to say, “Oh, yeah. I see what you mean.” And then after a while, they begin to trust you.

MH: Do you ever feel that you’ve edited something so much that you feel like it’s yours? Where is that line for you?

BW: You don’t want to do that. I mean, I think a copy editor, in a perfect world, has no opinions, only information. That, just because I might like it better this way, doesn’t mean anything. That’s not the way you wrote it. Is it clearer my way? I remember having a conversation with somebody who’d written a book on copy editing and was a fellow expert. She said that she just hated it when things she wrote had discretionary edits in them and got her thinking, “Oh, should I say it that way? Or should I say it this way?” And that’s where my training came in to explain what you’re doing and explain why you think it’s better this way. You’re supposed to have a reason for everything you want to do, and it’s not because I like it better that way. It’s because, according to the accepted practice that informs what we’re doing here, this is better. And then all you’re doing is conveying information—channeling the wisdom of the experts.

Bill Whitworth, when he was in charge of The Atlantic, was very committed to having a diversity of viewpoints. If it was something that seemed like it made sense to him but wasn’t seen anywhere—wasn’t an opinion that was out there everywhere else—he was interested in publishing it. We published an excerpt from The Bell Curve, about race and intelligence. Or in the early Reagan era, supply-side economics. That kind of thing, but the staff just hated what these people were saying. It was still my job to help them say it well. And it did give me a chance to say—and I know this is beyond what a copy editor is necessarily supposed to do, but—“If you’re going to say this up here and it’s supposed to lead into that down there, then there’s this whole missing piece of the argument in the middle that—I’m trying to follow along. I’m trying to agree with you and I don’t. So just FYI, if you want to do something about that? Want to be persuasive? Here’s how to do it.”

MH: Do you have some good examples of what the art of copy editing entails? And if so, what are they?

BW: Well, I can think of a really trivial example that came up just the other day. It has to do with whether you italicize foreign words or not. There are a lot of things that are gray areas. There are a lot of things that aren’t gray areas—it’s like, “No. This is the right way to do it.” And then, there are a lot of things that it’s going to look like you weren’t paying attention no matter how you do it. The style at my freelance client Technology Review, as far as I know, calls for a foreign word to be italicized the first time it appears. It was a special issue on China. So there was a Chinese word used: shanzhai. In one article, that word came up, oh, probably fifty times. And you’d just like it to be—it starts to look crazy to have it—every time it appears, be italicized, but all right: If you just do it the first time it appears, well, this has an art spread to open with, where it appears in a caption—before you get to any text, before you see it defined, before you know anything about it. Then, there’s a subhead under which is the definition with the first use. So do you not italicize it three times? Yeah. I guess you do. And then, you don’t the rest of the time. Well, then, people are going to go, “What’s this? Why did you do that?” There sort of can’t be a rule about it. One of the things that amused me at The Atlantic was whenever Martha, my co-worker, and I would get together, we’d decide we were going to go against the stylebooks and capitalize “universities” when it was Peking, or Beijing, and Shanghai universities. Some example would come up, sometime in the following week, where whatever it was that we had decided we were going to do or not do was just the wrong choice there. If you’re trying to have a consistent look and feel in a publication, you’ve got to be flexible.

MH: What is your favorite part of being a copy editor and why?

BW: Well, the chance to work with all these interesting writers and the chance to read all this interesting stuff. When I grew up, my favorite thing in life was reading. I would be late to the breakfast table. And to get paid to read all day—and a magazine you’re interested in— that’s pretty nice.

It’s also good for the current economy, just the way jobs are evolving. It’s a good mother’s job. It’s a good transferable job. I go over to England a lot just for fun, and all my clients except one, they’ll just send me a file. I can do it whenever, wherever I want, and send it back. I can be anywhere in the world and continue to do this job. So that’s a good side benefit.

MH: Do you prefer writing or editing?

BW: Oh. I think writing and having a finished product, “I made this,” is more gratifying, but I’ve never really been tempted to want to be a full-time writer.

MH: What is the biggest difference you’ve noticed about copy editing since you’ve started in the industry to now?

BW: There’s a lot more media out there than there used to be, and an awful lot of it is either not edited or not edited well, just all the stuff on the internet. And what with technological interventions like the self-correcting spelling—it tells me whether I’m going to put an apostrophe in “it’s” or not. My phone does that, or the word-processing program. I think people are going to perceive less and less the need to be precise in ways that kind of mattered to me over my lifetime.

And taking a long view, it used to be a sign of erudition that you could spell the same word six different ways in one article. It’s not going to be circling back around to that, but I think the norms are changing rather fast. Timewise, there was sort of one register of English, which was standard English, that was correct, and everything else was some sort of outlier. That’s still sort of true in mainstream magazines and newspapers and a lot of places, but we’re trying to be more inclusive and let different voices be heard. And it really messes up the—“well, what do you mean by standards? Are you just being exclusionary and want only the work of dead white men to be published? Or are you just letting people be themselves?”

MH: Do you think copy editing is heading in the direction of freelance? And why or why not is this a positive or a negative for the people in the industry?

BW: Yeah. It definitely is heading that way. When I was the editor of what was then called Copy Editor newsletter, there was discussion about changing the name. I just did that for a couple of years as a side gig. Shortly after I left, it was changed to Copy Editing because they had realized that most of the people who were doing copy editing were also doing something else. It was a part of their job. So readers didn’t really consider themselves copy editors. They were managers of something or other that had a newsletter. And so they had to be competent at copy editing. I think the number of sort-of-full-time professional copy editors in the world is plummeting and it’s a real natural job for freelancing. That has its pluses and its minuses. The one place that insists that I come into work because they’ve got a complicated Adobe InCopy computer system and they don’t feel like buying me a $2,000 license or whatever it is—it’s nice to go into the offices and interact with people. And somebody will have brought in cookies and—life. As opposed to trudging upstairs and sitting down at my desk, table, whatever, and just working at home alone, that can feel kind of isolating. And people who are making—other people I know who have been making that transition say, “Don’t you miss the office camaraderie?” Yeah. When I stopped going into the office when I was working full-time at The Atlantic and just had them fax me galleys, I would write on them and fax them back. But, it would just be—they would send me files to the house. But that gave me time to write my first book. Not having to get dressed, get on the T, and go into the office—not having to do all that stuff gave me two or three hours a day.

MH: So how is the copy editing process different from a newspaper in relation to the copy editing process that a magazine or a book undergoes? 

BW: Well, newspapers, it’s like if you were a doctor. A newspaper would be an emergency-room doctor. That’s very fast-paced, and we have to get it out of here today. And magazines are more leisurely, and books, more leisurely still, except that—well, let’s say you have a monthly magazine. If there’s been a bottleneck a week before it goes to the printer. You, the copy editor, are still supposed to read everything. Well, if somebody else messed up earlier in the chain, and you only have two days to take all the final steps, it’s just not going to come out as well. It just isn’t.

So there’s a longer timeline to get messed up. Whereas if it’s a newspaper or something, well, now that it’s all out on the web, you can write it first and correct it later if you want to. It didn’t use to be that way, but if you messed it up in yesterday’s paper, “Well, we’re on to a new one.” So you didn’t have to be so concerned. But if you’ve done a terrible job on a book that happens to be a best seller, it’s going to be out there for a long time and look terrible.

MH: What is the process you go through when you copy edit?

BW: Oh, you sit down. You read it. You mark it up, and you send it back.

MH: Do you read it multiple times?

BW: Well, at The Atlantic we did. I don’t think anybody now wants to pay me to read it a couple of times. There are situations like, let’s say a long healthcare policy report that you can tell has been written by multiple authors, each of whom is following a slightly different style or just isn’t thinking about style. So the footnotes are in different formats and the subheads are different and the bulleted lists are done differently here and there. And then you do have to kind of—you have to keep going forward and back to see—I mean, they have six co-authors and you’re the one person reading the whole thing trying to make it look consistent. So is the style that the first one—the way the first one did something or other, do you really want to stick with it all the way through if you didn’t particularly like it in the first case? If you get halfway through and you realize, “You know, that really is a dopey way to do it and it was only the first person who did it that way,” then you do have to do a lot of flipping back and forth. Thank God for computers for stuff like that because you can search and replace. In practically anything, you have to kind of go back and see what’s there, what style decisions have been made, and just try to make it consistent.

MH: What do you think the future of copy editing will look like? And more specifically, where do you see it going as a profession?

BW: Well, I think the kind of copy editing that I’m interested in, the kind where you’ve got to think about it, you’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to try to make it clearer—there will always be a need for that in intellectual circles, when intelligent, well-educated people are talking among themselves. But in the world at large, standards are very much up in the air. What is an appropriate standard for everything? Like what kind of words, or tones of voice, are allowed in comments to a newspaper section? And those things aren’t copy edited. You see, getting the opportunity to see more and more unedited prose and how that affects someone—how that affects your perception of the way it should be. I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Because it seems to me that people have been seeing bad writing forever, but there’s just kind of more and more of it. And if that’s what you’re used to seeing, it’s kind of hard to latch onto something and go, “No, this is the way it should be written.” It was very fortunate for me at The Atlantic: It was perfectly clear what kind of standards we had, and what reference books were being applied. And that was a very specific level of language. But when you go out in the world as a whole, Oh, My God.§

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