Sue Llewellyn began her professional life as a proofreader in New York City in 1964, asking annoying questions of writers—and her superiors. “To me, the theory of copy editing,” she says, “is a process of asking questions so that the eventual reader won’t have to.” She smiles rather wickedly as she sips a glass of wine at a bar called Le Singe Vert on New York’s west side. “A copy editor—what is that? Someone who’s waiting to slash and burn? Or who does punctuation? A computer can do that.” She grins again. “My brain doesn’t work that way.”
So why, I ask, does she have to ask all those questions—isn’t that what editors, rather than copy editors, are supposed to do? Isn’t a copy editor just there to correct errors of grammar and spelling and check the accuracy of things like dates?
“Editors at many houses don’t edit,” she says simply. “They acquire. If you find an editor who really edits, that’s dazzling. But you so rarely see any evidence of that pile of paper having been edited.” We both recall A. Scott Berg’s biography of the legendary editor Max Perkins—though it seems rather incredible now that a book on a subject like that became a bestseller. The fact is, the kind of editor Perkins was—adviser, hand-holder, line editor, a shaper of novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and From Here to Eternity, by James Jones—was already a vanishing breed in 1978, when Berg’s book came out. “Those were the days,” Llewellyn says wistfully.
Llewellyn is hardly alone in believing that editors don’t really edit anymore, let alone have long, evolving relationships with their writers. More often than not a writer will find that the editor who acquired his book has already moved on when the time comes for it to be shepherded through production. Fortunately for at least some writers, copy editors like Llewellyn are usually around longer; she worked at HarperCollins in New York for 17 years, and is still freelancing for them and numerous other publishers. After almost five decades, she’s still asking those questions, still in the business of the care and feeding of published English.
Language was always the thing
As it happens, though, her first language wasn’t English at all; it was German. If it hadn’t been for Hitler, Sue Heimann would have been born in Berlin. In November 1939, with Germany already at war in Europe, her Jewish parents squeaked into as-yet-unoccupied Holland and from there sailed to America, with baby Sue still safely in utero.
And Sue was seemingly destined for a life in language from day one. She was speaking baby (German) sentences at the precocious age of seven months. “Language was always the thing,” she says. “When I was a year and a half old I was out one day with my mother, who ran into someone on the street and began talking in English. I burst into tears because I didn’t understand what she was saying.” She still speaks German, though it isn’t her first language anymore. In fact, after Sue turned seven or eight she went on strike and refused to speak it at all; her mother had to pretend not to understand her English to get her to say it in German.
It’s an untested theory of mine that a talent for editing at almost any level tends to go hand in hand with an aptitude for languages. Apart from the truism that language is language in any form, there is also the fact that it is almost impossible to do well at more than one language (except perhaps in the case of total bilingualism) without possessing a serious interest in analyzing its components and its personality and peculiarities. One of the most obvious peculiarities of English is its spelling, and while one of the purposes of this article is to help dispel the notion that copy editors are glorified spellcheckers, there’s no question that spelling is part of their job description. Spelling demands (in my totally unscientific opinion) a great visual memory for how a word should look written down; but without some linguistic understanding of why herbaceous is spelled the way it is rather than herbatious, or even how words as seemingly simple as pear and pair and pare came about, you’ll never be a good speller.
Sue Llewellyn clearly doesn’t have any problems with spelling, and she speaks fluent French—which she took at Music and Art, New York’s renowned gifted-and-talented high school (now named for Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia)—as well as German. Indeed, her education—which began at P.S. 166 on the Upper West Side (a rather imposing building now named for another of its illustrious alumni, the composer Richard Rodgers) and continued at Joan of Arc middle school on West 93rd Street—is a testament to the solidity of the city’s mid-20th-century public school system. (Sitting in Le Singe Vert, as I was taking notes from our interview, Llewellyn read my illegible legal-pad scribbles upside-down—had she been doing that all along?—and said, with a tinge of surprise in her voice, “You spelled Rodgers right!”) From Music and Art’s old campus on 135th Street it was a mere 20 blocks or so, assisted by a Regents scholarship, to (private) college at Barnard, where Llewellyn was, unsurprisingly, an English major; also more or less a contemporary of Martha Stewart. “We might have taken the same Shakespeare or art history class,” she allows, though clearly they didn’t hang out together.
Books of knowledge
It must be a fair bet that few children say to themselves, “I’m going to be a copy editor when I grow up.” A personal note here: I certainly didn’t. I went to graduate school, decided I wouldn’t make a very good teacher, and bailed into a dogsbody job in a publishing house. There I learned that the chief copy editor paid piece rates to editorial assistants willing (and able) to proofread in their spare time, which, in view of my pitiful salary, I seized on gladly. And so it went; I learned the arcane signs and marks from Carmen Gomezplata at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, one of the great copy editors, and just went on doing it. I never even had to take a test.
Similarly, after graduating from Barnard, Sue Llewellyn was in want of work. She found it in the typing pool of the American Tobacco Company, where someone like her had to proofread every single piece of correspondence that issued from the firm. Seeking something perhaps a tad more creative, she interviewed at Newsweek magazine, where bright girls were hired as editorial assistants. Like a lot of publishers even now, Newsweek maintained a de facto class system that functioned through the company’s pay policies. When they told her what the salary was, Llewellyn said firmly, “I can’t afford it.” She put in a year of grad school at NYU instead, emerged with a master’s in English and got back into the job hunt. With minor assistance via the old-boy system, another time-honored aspect of publishing (and many other professions, of course), she found work at Grolier, renowned producer of encyclopedias such as The Book of Knowledge; their chief copy editor had gone to Barnard. Along with several other candidates, Llewellyn took Grolier’s in-house copy-editing test. “Every one of us missed ‘Pacfic Ocean,’” she says ruefully, “but I got the job anyway!” In 1964 Grolier was bringing out the successor series to The Book of Knowledge, imaginatively titled The New Book of Knowledge, and Llewellyn was hired as one of five dedicated proofreaders (those really were the days!)
She didn’t stay a proofreader for long. Not a shy type—Llewellyn has a sly sense of humor and a rather provocative way of letting her opinions be known—she kept asking those bothersome questions about (horrors!) the content of encyclopedia articles that had already ostensibly been copy-edited. Did they make sense? Did they contradict each other? At least nominally, their authors weren’t anonymous journeymen drudges churning out pieces on everything from Abyssinia to zygotes. Grolier commissioned serious academics and experts: the physicist/novelist and Cambridge don C.P. Snow wrote the lead piece on Britain for their Lands and Peoples series, for instance. After The New Book of Knowledge came out, Llewellyn became co-editor of the two European volumes of Lands and Peoples, an unexpectedly life-changing move. She had to track down a Welsh writer for the section on Wales; eventually they met, and, she says rather sweetly, “Reader, I married him.”
Putting the pieces together
Llewellyn followed the writer to Israel, Wales and Ireland; copy editing took a backseat to marriage. Fast forward a decade; the writer (who was considerably older than Llewellyn) died. On her own again, Llewellyn returned to New York, temporarily moved back in with her mother, and began to pick up the pieces of her former life. The publishers Harcourt Brace hired her as an in-house copy editor in their college division, where she lasted about two weeks. “Their whole working system was incredibly scatty,” says Llewellyn. As was her wont, she asked awkward questions about how things were done and didn’t get satisfactory answers. “I hate this,” she told her mother, and quit.
“In those days,” she says, “the ads in the subway said, ‘I got my job through the New York Times.’ And I actually did.” The ad she answered led to a couple of years producing another encyclopedia (this time for the National Association of Social Workers). After this Llewellyn moved over into what’s known as trade publishing (an odd name, because what it means is not “trade” at all, but general interest), first as a production editor in children’s books at E.P. Dutton, and finally as a staff production editor at what was then Harper & Row (later HarperCollins). At Harper she found her home as one of six production editors and stayed long enough to see the system undergo huge changes. Together in the early 1990s Llewellyn and Harper made the shift from typed manuscripts and long, unwieldy stacks of galley proofs to computers and ETM (“electronic text management”). Now, as a freelancer, she works at home, copy-editing on the computer or with pencil and paper, depending on the assignment.
One of the reasons Llewellyn is a good copy editor, I think, is that she never ceases to take even the minutiae of the work seriously. Sloppiness wounds her personally. When I brought up the subject of the so-called bible of the trade, the Chicago Manual of Style, which used to be distinguished by its hideous orange covers but has lately opted for a nondescript turquoise, she said, in a pained voice, “It sucks. Its index is appalling, not at all user-friendly. You have to guess what they might have called a subject merely in order to look it up.” She sighed, and plunged the knife in for the coup de grâce. “It reminds me of a friend in junior high who couldn’t spell.” In other words, how do you look things up in a dictionary when you don’t know how to spell them in the first place?
If there’s a period in her life as a copy editor that Llewellyn remembers most fondly, I think it may be her years at Grolier on the Book of Knowledge and Lands and Peoples, when she was younger and life was just starting. “We put out good stuff,” she says in her blunt way. And they talked things over with the writers whose work they edited; sometimes, as happened to Llewellyn, they even married them. “That still seems to me to be the ideal,” she says. “To sit down with that person and let him or her know you are on the same page.” She smiles again. “That’s an appropriate metaphor, isn’t it?”—TAMARA GLENNY