May 23, 2013

Talking to editors about the “Vigilante Copy Editor”


Some of us correct typos for a living—as I do with my variously colored pencils, pens, and Post-it notes—and some of us correct them in secret, as Jay Dockendorf  began to notice, in late-2012, on the placards dotting Pratt Institute‘s sculpture park. Clunky sentence structure was smoothed out (“has a reference” became “makes reference”), and proper punctuation was added or replaced (“rhythmic subtle spatial surface” became “rhythmic, subtle, spatial surface”), and on and on went the rhythmic, subtle, spatial—and anonymous—corrections. He dubbed the perpetrator the “Vigilante Copy Editor.”

I can’t say I disagree with the vandalism.

When a sign is typo-laden, what is being conveyed? Carelessness? Artlessness? Lawlessness? I walk through an installation, whether in a museum or in a courtyard, partly to take pleasure in how the placards contextualize the work, even if they reveal only the year or the artist’s name. If consistency and clarity are evident in the signage—as Xu Bing insists in his experimental novella, Book from the Ground, which consists solely of signs—then so too authority of the art being presented.

Unless, of course, the signage is meant to call attention to itself.

This is the loose theory held by some of my fellow production editors, copy editors, and proofreaders, whom I like to poll for opinions and observations about all things punctuation-driven. (None of them, by the way, cop to being the vandal.)

Meryl Gross, an associate managing editor, starts off with:

As a Pratt alum I can only say that I wish someone would edit the sculptures as well. When I was there, we tossed folding chairs off rootftops and got graded on it: now, that was sculpture.

To which John Wolfman, a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, adds:

In my experience with art schools, good writing, without typos, is considered to be the mark of someone who’s not a real artist. You’re expected to be a sloppy writer (as long as you remember to use whatever clichés are in vogue: “paradigm” is de rigueur).

Rosa, a former editor of Grapefruit: An Occasional for the Bibliophiles says:

The typos and writing errors on the plaques are like potholes in a road: they cause a bump or jolt as you read. Your brain works to correct them instead of absorbing the information smoothly and remaining focused on the artwork. Then the corrections to the typos, made in this overt way, add further bumps to the road, so that the viewer is now entirely distracted by the plaque and the quality of its text—and taken out of his or her engagement with the work of art. The art is now secondary to the plaque.

Kevin Bourke, a senior production editor, says:

I love that the [New York Times] comments are on the side of the copy editors. The human interaction—perhaps better described as audience participation instead of vandalism—is something I imagine the artists probably enjoy. It doesn’t sound like anyone at the school itself is complaining about this, and it saves Pratt the expense of having to make revised placards.

Am I the vigilante? I carry with me only Waterman pens, not Sharpies.

And Mareike Grover, a senior production editor, asks:

Perhaps that Vigilante Copy Editor is a guerrilla artist? The edits themselves could be seen as artworks in progress. Perhaps if you string them together and play them backward, they form a message.

The overall conclusion from my colleagues is that Pratt needs to hire a copy editor. John McPhee recounts the story of how Eleanor Gould was taken in by The New Yorker, in 1925, as its general copy editor, and remained at the job for fifty-four years:

When [Gould] finished [reading a copy of The New Yorker with a blue pencil in hand], the magazine was a mottled blue on every page—a circled embarrassment of dangling modifiers, conflicting pronouns, absent commas, and over-all grammatical hash. She mailed the marked-up copy to Harold Ross, the founding editor, and Ross was said to have bellowed. What he bellowed was “Find this bitch and hire her!”


I contacted Dockendorf to see if the Vigilant Copy Editor ever surfaced. The answer is yes and no: After the New York Times article and video appeared, VCE sent him an e-mail via his website to thank him for “the flattery.” They made a date to meet one Monday by the cannon in Pratt’s courtyard, but two hours before the set time, VCE canceled, preferring perhaps to keep up the “romanticism,” as VCE put it, of not being known. Dockendorf has not heard from the vigilante since.

Dockendorf concludes in his e-mail:

When I last checked a few days before the piece went live on the Times, some of the placards were still marked; Pratt scrubbed most of them clean in the past year. I saw some new copy-minded graffiti recently that looked unusual. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, so I suspect others have taken up the mantel from VCE, who first struck (to the best of my knowledge) in summer of 2012, and whose handwriting by now I know well.


Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.