Last week I got a delivery that yanked me back ten years. It was the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, the venerable repository of finicky editing rules and regulations. We word nerds call it CMOS, and until recently, I hadn’t cracked open my CMOS (16th edition) since 2010.

In that previous life, before I started coding web sites full-time, I pushed words around as a copy editor of mostly technical books. I was good. I got kudos for my sharpness from Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of C++! Please tell me you’ve heard of him. I garnered raves for my incredible pickiness (no, it’s not “pickyness”) from the vaunted author of Documenting Software Architectures! What do you mean you’re not familiar?!

Back in the day, I’d scour manuscripts for any rule breaking and I’d slash those suckers with my red pencil. Are you really trying to split that infinitive? Take that! Did you think you could get away with another passive-voice passage? No way! You gave me a two-word “time box” a few chapters back but now you want to one-word it? What do you take me for?!

I started this madness straight out of college, after falling in love with book making in a class on ancient manuscripts. I graduated, passed my mail-in freelance editing tests with flying colors, and I was off. Publishers would FedEx bulky manuscripts to me, I’d crisscross them with my penciled corrections and lick and glue pink and blue “query flags” to the page edges. (This was before Post-its!) Then I’d make copies of the hundreds of pages at a copy shop, package them all up in their overnight wrappings, and send them off to the author and publisher. They’d read the edits, package up all the paper, and overnight it back to me to finalize and send to the typesetter. This sequence of shipping and paperwork would continue for months until the book went to press. I loved it, and knew I’d found my purpose.

Sometime in the 90s, we started using computers to edit the manuscripts. Great! I can buy a Mac! Goodbye paper! Goodbye red and blue pencils! Goodbye eraser crumbs! No more FedExing. No more copy shops. No more weird gluey pre-Post-its.

Then the internet happened. I got my Internet Starter Kit, and started tinkering with this newfangled HTML, which lead to web site work, and next thing you know my editing days were over. Instead of words, I started slinging code. In code, you break the rules and your shit breaks. Period.

All the years that I played the part of the coder, I knew I was still an editor really. When I’m writing a JavaScript function, I start by putting logical pieces together and making something new that does something useful. But after the initial creation, I spend most of my time removing stuff that doesn’t need to be there, making the code readable to other programmers, and polishing. Whether it’s code or prose, the goal is seamless elegance.

The pandemic and my inveterate antsiness when it comes to jobs have conspired to bring me back to my editing life. Last month I took another freelance editing test, this time by email, and woohoo! I passed. Last week I started my first new editing project in a decade. I can’t tell you what it is, but there are zombies! In a tech book. That’s cool, right?

This morning I looked up a word in an actual dictionary. I needed to know if mise en place was in my dusty Webster’s 11th. (It wasn’t.) Then I searched my brand-new CMOS to see if I should capitalize during in a title (I didn’t), and I read about the best way to reduce repetitive footnotes, and whether phrases introducing a list should end with a colon or a period. I’ll be doing this all day for the next couple of weeks.

This is my happy place. I’m glad I found it again.

My new baby is here! Photo by me.