Thursday, February 11, 2021

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Line editors are architectural planners; copyeditors are finish carpenters. You need both of them to make a building -- and the writer who actually does the construction, obviously -- but what they do is very different.

Benjamin Dreyer is that unlikely thing, the famous copyeditor. I think he was only mildly famous, in the usual literary circles, a few years back -- he was the copy chief for Random House, so authors would fight to have him work on their books. (Or, equally, fight to have him not work on their books -- authors and editors of all stripes are specific and quirky, and often do not get along with each other for very particular stylistic reasons.)

But then he wrote Dreyer's English, a compendium of his copyeditorial tricks and standards and notes. And the people who make strong, particular books about language into bestsellers -- remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves? It happens once or twice a decade -- did that again for Dreyer's book. So he is now at least somewhat famous.

As I said, Dreyer is a copyeditor. He will not give you advice on how to structure your novel, what voice to use, or how to sustain suspense across three continents and four generations in your family saga. He will tell you that you're using too many adverbs, that you should be more consistent in your treatment of numbers and punctuation, and that there are certain words (spelling and meaning thereof) that you just need to look up every single time to be sure. Names of people and places also benefit from being checked, he would add. In general, he will give finish-carpenter advice: these are the things to do to polish a manuscript of whatever kind once you have the general words down on paper, not things to worry about when you're staring at a blank page waiting for the blood drops to form on your forehead.

Dreyer is punchy and acerbic and deeply opinionated, like the best editors: you should never be confused where you stand with an editor, and you never are with him. There are things that may be style questions, but he will definitely have an opinion as to which style is right. (Did I mention that some writers will go out of their way not to work with specific copyeditors? That's one big reason: a writer needs a partner who believes she's doing things the right way for her piece of prose and will clear out the roadblocks on that path rather than trying to hack a different road through the jungle of words.)

If you are a writer on any level, you will find a lot of interest here. You will also find at least a few things you disagree with, mildly or violently -- for me, it was mostly on the mild side, since I haven't been a working editor for a decade and have mellowed with age. The core of Dreyer's advice is right for everyone, though: a piece of prose should be clear, and there are lots of grammatical and usage tricks you should know to help create that clarity. In the end, that's what he's all about -- a copyeditor's job is to make a piece of prose "the best possible version of itself it can be," as Dreyer puts it on page xi.

You have to care enough about words to read a book like this in the first place. If you have heard about it, and you think you might want to read it -- you do. If this is the first time you've ever heard about Dreyer's English, it is less likely to be for you, unless you are of tender years or recently emerged from a fallout shelter.

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