Legends of the Blue Pencil

I used to work for a guy who was the God of Copy Editors.

He was an intense, slightly built man with fine features, a Roman nose, and long flowing brown hair. He wore tailored clothes and carried a man-purse. He spoke precisely with a fairly thick East Coast urban accent. He had been editing copy for 20 years when I met him. I was a young ex-rock-critic demoted to editorial assistant at a medical journal, and not at my peak of maturity, but I learned a lot from him.

He had geek social skills and frequently alienated others because he spoke very directly and did not engage in argument; he was just right. There were no differences of opinion about editing. There was a right way, and a wrong way. When the style guide offered two ways, he had one. His knowledge of all sorts of journalism, book editing, and publishing production was encyclopedic. We used to joke that he should be placed in a four-sided cubicle prison and have worked dropped in the top that he would slide out the bottom to avoid interpersonal conflict.

He remained a friend after I left that job. Years later, he took another technical editing job where he reported to an editor-in-chief who did not enjoy his brusque way with small editing disagreements. He would just say “You’re wrong. This is the way to do it.” Increasingly, she felt her authority was being undermined, and although he was undeniably talented and experienced, she was after all the boss.

One day he corrected her in his usual charming way on some small, abstruse bit of style. I think it was a type size, or whether a caption should be in italics. She finally lost her cool. “Goddamnit!” she yelled “I’m sick of you telling me all the time what to do without any reference. I’m the editor-in-chief here, and you’re not in charge. If you’re going to reverse everything I do you have to cite an accepted style guide for this or I’m not going to change a single thing!”

Without any pause and without looking up from his desk, he said: “Words Into Type, page 169. The footnote.”

She walked over to the bookcase, pulled out Words Into Type, and paged a bit. There was a long pause. With a snort she slammed the book back into the shelf and walked out for a long lunch.

He was right. After that, she didn’t yell at him any more.

I miss that guy.

6 thoughts on “Legends of the Blue Pencil

  1. It’s the calm one liners that really floor people.
    Recently there was an interoffice theft that ended up being perpetrated by the owner herself. (however she accused everyone of it in the meantime) Once she relized that everyone would have to take a polygraph including her, the missing piece of equipment suddenly showed up in abilene. When she was bringing it in from “abilene” where the electricians had accidentally taken it to, she puts on a dopey smile and goes “fresh from EAST Texas.” I didn’t look up from what i was doing, and said calmly “Abilene is in West Texas.” She stopped smiling.

    1. Me too. Especially as I have a history of telling authority figures they’re wrong too. Did that to my film editing prof once, and I’m not sure he ever actually forgave me…

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