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January 26, 2005

It’s not a freelance gig, it’s a calling
Posted by Teresa at 05:52 PM * 49 comments

Maybe it’s funny to the rest of you, but to me The Onion’s Someday, I Will Copyedit The Great American Novel is just plain heartwarming—aside from the miscapitalization in the title, of course.

Most of my coworkers here at Washington Mutual have no idea who I really am. They see me correcting spelling errors in press releases and removing excess punctuation from quarterly reports, and they think that’s all there is to me. But behind these horn-rimmed glasses, there’s a woman dreaming big dreams. I won’t be stuck standardizing verb tenses in business documents my whole life. One day, I will copyedit the Great American Novel.

“Sure,” you say, “along with every other detail-oriented grammarian in the country.” Yes, I know how many idealistic young people dream of taking a manuscript that captures the spirit of 21st-century America and removing all of its grammatical and semantic errors. But how many of them know to omit the word “bear” when referring to koalas? How many know to change “pompom” to “pompon”?

Copyediting is a craft. A good copy editor knows the rules of punctuation, usage, and style, but a truly great copy editor knows when to break them. Macaulay’s copy editor let him begin sentences with “but.” JFK’s copy editor knew when to let a split infinitive work its magic. You need only look at Thackeray to see the damage that overzealous elegant variation can do. Right now, there’s a writer out there with a vision as vast as Mark Twain’s or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. He is laboring in obscurity, working with deliberate patience. He isn’t using tricks of language or pyrotechnic plot turns. He is doing the hardest work of all, the work of Melville, of Cather: He is capturing life on the page. And when the time comes, I’ll be here—green pencil in hand—to remove the excess commas from that page.

With clear eyes and an unquenchable thirst for syntactical truth, I will distinguish between defining and non-defining relative clauses and use “that” and “which” appropriately. I will locate and remove the hyphen from any mention of “sky blue” the color and insert the hyphen into any place where the adjective “blue” is qualified by “sky.” I will distinguish between “theism” and “deism,” between “evangelism” and “evangelicalism,” between “therefor” and “therefore.” I will use the correct “duct tape,” and not the oft-seen apocope “duck tape.” The Great American Novel’s editor will expect no less of me, for his house will be paying me upwards of $15 an hour, more than it paid the author himself. …

Some people edit copy because they choose to. I copyedit because I must. It isn’t merely a matter of making a living. If it were that, I would have been line editing years ago. …
That’s almost frighteningly accurate, right down to the hourly rate.
Comments on It's not a freelance gig, it's a calling:
#1 ::: Chris Bertram ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 06:15 PM:

Teresa, straight after I read that Onion piece I had to surf over here, and, sure enough ...

#2 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 06:18 PM:

I know this feeling, but whoever he/she is, the vocabulary is better than mine:

apocope: The loss of one or more sounds from the end of a word, as in Modern English sing from Middle English singen.

#3 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 06:39 PM:

They've been having fun with this article on the Editors' Association of Canada listserv today. The consensus seem to be that it is failed satire -- and that it really needed editing. For one thing, duck tape is no apocope.

I thought the piece was really funny, but I seem to be in a minority.

BTW, that hourly rate is depressingly low. That's what I used to bill in the early 1980s. Is that really still the going rate in New York? Yikes!

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:01 PM:

Chris, mere moments after I put up this post (which was only a few minutes after Patrick sent me the link), Kevin Maroney, Chris Quinones, and Avram Grumer showed up at my office door and handed me the hardcopy version of the article.

Greg, the mismatch between skills and compensation is as bad as ever.

#5 ::: LizardBreath ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:21 PM:

But, but... 'duck tape' is correct! 'Duct tape' is itself a hypercorrection -- probably more standard by now, but that doesn't make the original form wrong.

#6 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:38 PM:

I'm curious, LB, how is 'duck tape' correct? The stuff really was invented to tape HVAC sheet metal duct joints, hence the shiny aluminum surface. A similar matte black tape, used by film crews to attach lighting instruments to vaious surfaces is known as 'gaffer tape'. The main difference is that gaffer tape is supposed to have a adhesive that does not leave a residue.

#7 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:41 PM:
That’s almost frighteningly accurate, right down to the hourly rate.

Attention to detail has always been one of The Onion's great (and underappreciated) strengths, I think. I remember one article, "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster," which posited a ceiling collapse at the 40 Watt Club: Every detail of the incident was spot-on, down to the names of the record stores where the clerks worked.

#8 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:42 PM:

"Duck Tape" is an actual trademarked brand name, isn't it?

#9 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:43 PM:

Natually, I did not check the open thread before posting. You would think I would learn by now . . .

#10 ::: Aiglet ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 07:56 PM:

I know this is probably a silly question, but what *is* the difference between "that" and "which"?

(Hey, give me some credit, at least I know -- and can explain -- the difference in usage between "less" and "fewer"!)

#11 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:01 PM:

"The stuff really was invented to tape HVAC sheet metal duct joints, hence the shiny aluminum surface."

What's usually called duct tape is a dull silver fabric tape with rubber adhesive. That stuff is very poor at sealing ducts. It is waterproof; I think that is the source of the trade name "Duck Tape".

#12 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:14 PM:

Aiglet: "That" is restrictive, "which" is not. Or, explained more fully: the construct "A that is B" is distinguishing a subset of A that is B from a subset of A that is not B, and referring specifically to the former subset. The construct "A, which is B" (note the comma difference as well) is merely noting that the A being referred to is B.

Thus, "Use the car, which is green" means that the context has already limited things to one car, and I'm telling you it's green. "Use the car that is green" means that there are many cars you could use, and I'm telling use to use the green one.

Or, at least, that's how it was taught to me.

#13 ::: Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:15 PM:

Greg: Actually, phonetically speaking, 'duck tape' is in fact apocope. The word 'duck' is made up of three sounds, and the word 'duct' is made up of those three sounds plus the voiceless alveolar stop [t].


#14 ::: dolloch ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:18 PM:

Actually, duck is the original usage.

#15 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:19 PM:

Well, I'm amused that of the examples of classic authors she gives, I've proofread works by all but one (Fitzgerald). Reissues of Twain (The Innocents Abroad), Melville (Moby-Dick), and Cather (Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers!, and My Ántonia) have all felt the force of the mighty red pencil from my careful hand.

As for the actual copy editing of the Great American Novel: Melville, of course, qualifies, of course, but I merely proofread the book. I did severely copy edit some of the wrongheaded notes the editor had added, but that's another story. If I'd been copy editing it, I would certainly have some fact-checking queries... But I think that somewhere along the line I must have done at least one GAN. Teresa knows a certain high-profile best-seller I worked on, which I'd rather not mention in this forum, but which could in a certain way qualify.

But to a true copy editor, the most important book is always the one we're working on. Two, three, many Great American Novels...

I'm not going to get into a big quibble about duck/duct tape, but I do know that in certain contexts "duck" is perfectly correct.

The article captures well a certain quintessential personality I'm all too familiar with, in both a negative and a positive way. In fact (check the photo on the link), Joanne, wherever you are, you're kinda cute. What say we have coffee sometime? I'm sure we'd have lots to talk about...

#16 ::: MJ ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:22 PM:

Jim and Tim, the Duck/Duct Tape Guys (I'm guessing they're kind of like the Car Guys, but on a smaller, and yet more versatile, scale), say either is correct:

I once interviewed with a company that was handling an advertising account for Manco, which at that time produced Duck Tape™. My research then indicated that they were very... uh... sticky about the brand name issue. The company that owns it now seems to have a better sense of humor about it; they even sponsor a duct tape [sic] promwear competition:


#17 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:22 PM:

Jennie: Phonetically perhaps, but not historically. In fact, this is the opposite situation: the addition of the alveolar stop. I'm sure that there's a term for that too, but I'm feeling too lazy to dig it up. And anyway I suspect you won't have to look it up.

#18 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:29 PM:

Also, on the subject of Force-like silver tape ("It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together"), the OED has a first reference to "duct tape" of 1965, and notes that the etymology is "perh. an alteration of earlier 'duck tape'". Their reference for "duck tape" (which actually doesn't have a pre-1965 citation yet) gives a cite defining it as "tape of heavy cotton fabric such as duck or drill, which may be impregnated with an asphalt, rubber, or synthetic compound." Which probably is where the name's from.

The company that makes Duck(R) Tape has a somewhat different -- or at least redacted -- version of the history; they note that the tape (which they refer to in the generic as "duct tape") was developed in the 1940s during WWII, but claim that in 1985 their CEO "officially [renamed] duct tape 'Duck Tape'" and created the cute little yellow duck mascot for it.

Yet another place ( notes that it was invented in 1942 by Johnson and Johnson, was originally called "duck tape", and the use on ducts was not the original use -- it was pressed into service for ductwork in the housing boom after the war. Further, they note that the original duck tape was olive drab; it was only after the use on ducts became popular that it was made in silver.

#19 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 09:04 PM:

I sent it to a copy editor at work from home, and I understand that most of the editorial staff actually took notes.

#20 ::: Xopher said this before ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 09:12 PM:

No, no, no! Duck is a light cotton fabric! Originally the tape was made of it. I said this on the open thread...

'Duck' is certainly not an apocope. If it WERE true that the original usage was 'duct' and the 't' was historically lost, an apocope would have occurred, but even in that (contrafactual) case, the resultant WORD would not be "an apocope."

In fact, as several have pointed out, 'duct' is a hypercorrection, and the tape became (mis)-used for sealing ducts due to Sapir-Whorf phenomena.

As Sigourney Weaver says in Galaxy Quest, "Why does it always have to be DUCTS?!"

#21 ::: Glen Blankenship ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 09:42 PM:

A former gaffer's "duck/Duck/duct" tape trivia:

The tape sold in hardware stores as "duct tape" is a silvery plastic film (usu. polyethylene or PVC) over a coarse nylon or polyester mesh, with a gummy adhesive that can fill small voids.

Duct tape apparently WAS invented to seal HVAC ducts - the plastic film makes it airtight, and the adhesive prevents gap leakage. (Though it turns out the plastic film ages and degrades and the adhesive dries, shrinks and cracks, so it's really not very good at sealing airducts.)

It largely replaced a previous generation of "duct tape" that was something between heavy aluminum foil and lightweight flashing, with an even thicker, gummier gap-filling adhesive - which still exists, mostly serving odd purposes in the racing and auto-body trades, but isn't much sold as duct tape any more.

(That's why "duct tape" used to always be silvery.)

"Duck Tape" (TM) the brand-name was a trademarking of the apocope of "ductape" applied to a line of duct tape in smaller rolls (and in multiple colors) aimed at the consumer market. (They have since diversified. :-)


Here's the odd part:

The stuff we gaffers use on stage and set and call "Gaffer's Tape" is descended from a tape created by Johnson & Johnson's Permacel division for the US military in WWII.

It's a waterproof heavy cotton canvas with a natural rubber adhesive that separates cleanly when the tape is removed. It can be torn cleanly by hand, and can be torn into narrower widths along the lenghtwise grain of the fabric. (These days some brands use a synthetic rubber adhesive for better performance and a vinyl coat over the cotton canvas fabric for improved waterproofing.)

It comes in 1, 2, 3, and 4-inch widths and a variety of colors, though black and grey are the most popular on set. Permacel is still the choice of most pros, but there are other brands.

The orginal came in 3-inch wide rolls, in Olive Drab (and... grey? white? I forget). It was officially called "waterproofing tape" and there are attested sources of GIs referring to it as "duck tape".

It can be used for most of the things people use duct tape for - and is, in fact, a better tape for most such applications.

And so "duck tape" "duct tape" and "Duct Tape" can each be correct, depending on precisely which tape you're talking about. :-)

But, as far as I can tell, Duck Tape (TM) and the GI's "duck tape" is a coincidence. And duct tape isn't descended from duck tape. :-)

#22 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 10:52 PM:

That was a great article! I do something rather more complicated but don't get paid a LOT more. I did get a princely raise this year in recognition of the fact I'm pretty much a one-man-band at our firm (we're a trade show publisher, we do exhibit guides for attendees.... I, tnrough various ways and means, get exhibitor data ready for a layout artist to flow into the layout without having to touch every record). But it's not that much more.

#23 ::: S. Orwell ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 11:38 PM:

I think the best point is that even at the crummy rate the editor is paid, the editor earns more than the author. ;-)

#24 ::: Nick Douglas ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 12:22 AM:

This may be the right time for me to pop in with this maybe-already-covered question:

How do I start a career as a copy-editor? Should I apply to an alt-weekly, or can I go from college student to real-newspaper-copy-editor in one step?

#25 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 01:12 AM:

That took me back to my time as an idealistic and youthful copy-editor. I can tell it's funny, but I didn't laugh. I remember in my first job one day I was copy-editing a play with tears streaming down my face, when the author walked in. It's a very intimate relationship.

#26 ::: Lawrence Watt-Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 02:03 AM:

Damned slowpoke writers. I make more per working hour than a copy editor.

#27 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 04:00 AM:

But do you still pronounce the final 'e' in apocope these days?

#28 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 06:15 AM:

I left a printout of the article with the chief copy editor at work yesterday. He was amused.

Re: compensation. The Copy Editors List (CE-L) recently discussed a job offered in Bethesda at $14/hour. One could earn more as a moderately skilled clerical temp.

#29 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 07:28 AM:

Nick, if you're still in college it's a good idea to grab the opportunity to volunteer at your college paper. Also academic journals sometimes have internships that involve a variety of resume-worthy tasks, including copyediting, and give you class credit for doing them.

When escaped from grad school in 1993 I planned to make a living copy-editing, but when I arrived in Chicago I discovered that while the Brittanica was rumored to pay a generous 18k yearly for copy editors (that's, what, $9 an hour?), just about any company out there would pay me $12 an hour to merely type on a computer. I thought, at the time, that everyone knew how to use a computer, but apparently not. Basic tech writing started at $15 an hour and so did help desk, so that was the end of my editorial ambitions.

That, and the fact that when I sent a resume to the Chicago Tribune I misspelled "proofreading." Yep. I really did. Sometimes you have to just know when to hang your head in shame and completely alter your life plans.

#30 ::: Elric ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 09:14 AM:


Nice ducts! (Brazil)

#31 ::: Anne KG Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 09:48 AM:

Glen, I appreciate your comments. I've used quite a lot of Gaffer's tape in stage work and will never forget the first time I used Duck Tape (TM) and was horribly disappointed at the horrible quality of the tape - it wouldn't tear cleanly, it wouldn't come off cleanly and it was just all-around horrible to work with compared to nice quality gaffer's tape.


Is it twisted of me to react to this thread with the thought that the nice high-paying computer engineering job I just got will allow me to afford to continue my copyediting habit?

#32 ::: Deanna Hoak ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 10:35 AM:

Actually, most SF/F houses--I believe I've worked for all of them, at this point, and Mike and Kathy Gear request me for their books from Forge--currently pay their copyeditors considerably "upwards" of $15 an hour--more like $20-22 an hour to start. A really good copyeditor--one who is regularly requested by the authors and editors for whom she works--can command a higher salary.

#33 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 12:04 PM:

Was that article funny? I found it kinda heartwarming, maybe even inspiring. All the good copyeditors I know have a similar fervor. Our Topic Hostess certainly does...

#34 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 01:15 PM:

But what's her position on the Serial Comma Controversy?

Glen Blankenship writes:

It's a waterproof heavy cotton canvas with a natural rubber adhesive that separates cleanly when the tape is removed. It can be torn cleanly by hand, and can be torn into narrower widths along the lenghtwise grain of the fabric. (These days some brands use a synthetic rubber adhesive for better performance and a vinyl coat over the cotton canvas fabric for improved waterproofing.)

It comes in 1, 2, 3, and 4-inch widths and a variety of colors, though black and grey are the most popular on set. Permacel is still the choice of most pros, but there are other brands.

The orginal came in 3-inch wide rolls, in Olive Drab (and... grey? white? I forget). It was officially called "waterproofing tape" and there are attested sources of GIs referring to it as "duck tape".

Me, I like something called Polyken, an olive-drab, fiber-reinforced vinyl tape which holds much of our lab together. From Glen's description, it sounds like an imitation of gaffer's tape. Can be torn cleanly, etc. I haven't worked much with real gaffer's tape, which I might like better.

Alas, 25 years after I started working here, the stockroom quit stocking this tape. Instead they now give you a silver roll of something like duct (duck) tape, which just isn't the same....

#35 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 02:56 PM:

I showed the Onion article to my sometime-copyeditor wife. She read it, and responded, "It's not funny, just... accurate."

#36 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 03:28 PM:

great moments in freelance copy editing: from the cranky_editors community at LiveJournal, this triumphant story, bless her heart.

#37 ::: Alice Keezer ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 03:28 PM:

$15/hour is bad?

Man, am I in the wrong field.

Silly me, learning how to use computers instead of putting my nitpicky habits to good use.

So how DOES one become a copyeditor? If your local paper thinks it doesn't need one and you don't know of any local publishers, that is.

#38 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 04:13 PM:

Alice, there's a big market opening up for people who know InDesign, and that pays $20 and up to start. Adobe is gearing up to try the Office Suite strategy to squeeze out Quark, so even if that doesn't work out for them a lot of shops are going to have InDesign and no-one who knows how to use it. It's a terrific publishing/advertising foot-in-the-door opportunity, because no-one has really bothered to learn it up to this point.

Also, once you know In Design you basically know PageMaker, Illustrator, Acrobat, and a fair amount of Photoshop and GoLive, which is a good skill set just now.


#39 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 04:28 PM:

Alice, $15/hour is lousy pay, at least for a professional, in the New York Metropolitan area. In a place where housing prices, for example, are lower, it might be a very good rate of pay.

That said, I know people who are making $7/hour (they work for the gym I go to). They all either have more than one job, or are students and primarily supported by their parents.

#40 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 06:39 PM:

Glen observes:
The tape sold in hardware stores as "duct tape" is a silvery plastic film (usu. polyethylene or PVC) over a coarse nylon or polyester mesh, with a gummy adhesive that can fill small voids.

That's a fascinating inversion, rather like what happened to (e.g.) "pompous" or "awful". When I started working on set crews (36 years ago), 2" cloth tape that did not come off easily was called "duct tape". When the stuff you describe started to appear, it was sometimes sold as "duct tape", but we called it "quack tape", partly for the pun and partly because it bore about the relationship to real duct tape (as it was called then) as a quack does to a doctor. (We sometimes wondered whether there were any threads at all in it as it looked like the plastic was stamped to seem threaded.)

#41 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 08:57 PM:

I have never worked for WaMu, but I have been the de facto copy editor at pretty much every job I've had, regardless of my official duties. I usually didn't get paid $15 an hour for it, or even close, but the compulsion is certainly accurately described.

Which makes the fact that I just found a typo in one of my own emails--after I had sent it out to an English grad colleague-- particularly mortifying. I mean, I am a person who rewrites her emails before sending them, let alone more formal documents.

#42 ::: Jeremy Osner ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 10:20 PM:

Does anybody else here have a problem with obsessively copy-editing their own already posted comments on blogs?

#43 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2005, 03:28 AM:

I don't know that I'd classify it as a problem...

#44 ::: Rachel ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2005, 11:35 AM:

You know, I did a little copy-editing in high school, but none since then. The Onion article didn't make me laugh so much as evoke a sigh and a daydream of the day when I might possibly pick up a little copy-editing work. I do surreptitiously do some in my current job, but computer programmers tend not to appreciate such behavior from their colleagues. You would not believe the amount of effort it took me to convince my previous employer that there is a difference between "principal" and "principle", and that the latter does not apply to loans.

#45 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2005, 07:22 PM:

I did most of the copy-editing for the GMI forums on AOL. More recently, I enrolled in an online arthritis study (I got randomized into not participating this year) and noticed that the guy in charge is the "principle researcher." I mentioned it as a typo when emailing them about something else, and the response was that Stanford insists that's the correct spelling.

#46 ::: mcvouty ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2005, 10:58 AM:

Further to Xopher's comment, nonprofits in New York pay me $25 hour, and have for about the last seven years. Now, I've seen copyediting gigs listed on craigslist for less but I can only assume that they get what they pay for.

#47 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2005, 12:13 PM:

Jeremy, I'm with Ray: what do you mean, problem?

If it weren't compulsive behavior, it wouldn't be compulsive behavior.

#48 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2005, 12:55 PM:

Please let us not compare freelance rates with actual hired person rates.

The former include lots of expenses that are covered in the latter (half of FICA/Social Security, necessarily; usually various benefits like vacation, sick leave, health insurance, and more).

Corporations generally pay at least twice as much for an employee as the employee gets.

Hourly cash is not a simple measure.

#49 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2005, 03:45 PM:

By the way, today is the feast day of St. John Bosco, the patron saint of editors...

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