A huge influence on my writing was the work I did as a copy editor. I made a living as a copy editor for a few years, including about 2 years almost exclusively for Viking/Penguin. How an unedjumacated non-college-attending former-soldier-slob folksinging happy idiot such as myself became a copy editor and proofreader for Viking/Penguin is a long, tedious story, but suffice to say someone must have taken pity on me.
So why so important to my writing? A few reasons, some of them practical, some of them creative, some of them nuts-and-bolts. For one, it forced a breadth of reading I wouldn’t have had otherwise (not likely, I, to pick up The Secret Language of Names or a manual on Java or a biography of Van Day Truex). It forced a serious contemplation of punctuation and language and grammar choices. Because I got to read the margin-scribbled “conversations” between authors and editors (especially on the proofreading jobs, when I was last in line with the manuscript), I was allowed a glimpse inside the world of publishing when I was still outside of it, as well as a glimpse inside the creative (or noncreative) decisions of authors and editors.
It was inspiring. I was doing this work while writing my first novel. When a piece of, shall we say it, shit crossed my desk, I was inspired: “If they’ll publish this, shall we say it, shit, they’ll publish anything…and I’m writing anything right now.” When a piece of beauty crossed my desk, I got to be inside of it, pull it apart, admire it, and force myself and my work to rise to it.
So what did I get to do? Much fun: William Vollmann’s Argall. I think Mr. V. had a bad reputation with the Viking copy editors. I think he didn’t like them very much. So the managing editor sent me the manuscript for Argall. I read it through, and, essentially, write STET across the whole thing and called it a day (not really, but pretty close). We heard later from Paul Slovak that Vollmann said it was the best copyediting he’d ever had. Aw, shucks.
I did me some Martha Grimes. Some unpublished Kerouac. Some Niall Ferguson. The Dalai Lama. The Dalai leads to an interesting conundrum: how do you copy edit the Dalai? Are you going to tell the Dalai he put a comma in the wrong place? I don’t think so.
I wrote a piece about the aftermath of a copyediting job, here.