Zibby is so grateful Benjamin Dreyer has adapted his “magnum opus on grammar” for younger readers (she has two 7th graders who will soon find themselves with a copy!) She talks with Benjamin about his copy-editing origin story, the joys of rereading, and more in this conversation that truly celebrates craft.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Benjamin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Benjamin Dreyer: Thank you for having me. Happy Friday. Am I allowed to say happy Friday?

Zibby: Okay. I’ll try to release this on a Friday. Now I have vision. I have to remember that. Thank you for adapting your magnum opus on grammar for younger readers. Now I have two seventh graders. I am going to park a copy in each of their rooms and hope that maybe they will stop only emailing with emojis and all sort of other stuff, as you lamented in your book. Tell me about adapting your book for young readers. What made you write all these books to begin with?

Benjamin: To start with, the original version of the book, I had just gotten it into my head — there was one New Year’s Eve we were out in Los Angeles. We were having dinner. I made a New Year’s resolution that I was going to start to write a little bit every day. I hadn’t written in a very long time. I had been doing, of course, a lot of copy editing work for years. I find copy editing hugely satisfying. I think that maybe some people have the idea that editors and copy editors are frustrated writers, but it’s a different thing. It’s a completely different thing. I had loved doing it. I had done writing many years before and just sort of stopped. I made this New Year’s resolution that I was going to start to write. I was just writing a little bit every day, whatever came into my mind. Of course, as a person who’s worked in publishing for years, the idea of writing into thin air seemed sort of peculiar. It’s like, so think of a project. Think of something you might actually like to do. I thought, I would like to write a book about copy editing. I would like to write a book about what I do. I am not always the champion of the “write what you know” idea, but it’s not the worst idea on earth either.

Zibby: I think it depends on what you know.

Benjamin: Exactly. I got it into my head that I wanted to write this book. In a not-very-long amount of time, ended up under contract to my own publishing house, to Random House. A few years later, a lot longer than I thought it was going to take, a lot longer than everybody thought it was going to take, there was a book. That book was published, actually, it’ll be two years ago at the end of this month.

Zibby: And it’s in its zillionth printing, basically.

Benjamin: It’s either in its zillionth or its eleventh printing.

Zibby: Whatever. Same difference in publishing.

Benjamin: We can call it zillionth. The idea of adapting the book for younger readers was, I must confess, not my idea. It was the idea of the publishers of this new edition of the book. I thought it seemed like a fun idea, and so we embarked on this. I’m going to say I had a lot of help because I would not, all on my own, have known what to do. Do you want it shorter? Do you want it maybe a little less salty? It’s turned out to be both of those things. There were any number of ways where we worked on making it appropriate and, one hopes, a little bit more inviting and appealing to younger readers, changing some of the cited examples of books and authors and just trying to make it friendlier to a younger class of reader without making it condescending or patronizing. It’s still me. It’s still my voice. It still sounds like me. I kind of revel in the idea that I think it’s a pretty sophisticated book still. I’m hoping that the readers who come to it will find things in it that they can make good use of. As was the case with the original version of the book where I did say this is not a primer, this is not an exhaustive book about everything you need to know about everything. It is about subjects where I feel like I have something to bring to the table. I am grateful in advance for all of the work that English teachers and parents have done for the readers of this new edition of the book, I hope, talking them through a lot of the rudiments of it. I can come in with some things that I think are helpful to people who want to write, to people who enjoy this sort of thing.

Zibby: I know you say it’s adapted for younger readers, but this is a really good thing even for adults who maybe they don’t have your book. Maybe your book’s on that shelf and they want to have the children’s book closer because they’re like, wait, what about that comma? Do I put the comma before the quotes or after the quotes? I think my favorite line of your book is in the beginning when you were talking directly to younger readers and being like, I know that you think you know how to write, but just wait for it. You might be talking to people who aren’t the people you know right now. There might be a time in your life where you have to apply for a job or do any of these grown-up things, and language might come in handy. You said it in a very funny way. If that’s the saltiness you referred to, I liked it.

Benjamin: I don’t know that it is possible to inspire an affection for reading or writing out of thin air. I think that there’s an audience for this book that is not simply going to be parents buying copies and sticking it under the noses of their children. I’m hoping that younger people who were as enchanted by the written word as I was virtually from the dawn of my consciousness will find something useful here and something fun. I like to think that the original version of the book is fun. I like to think that this new version of the book is fun.

Zibby: You mentioned in the book, the sign that hung over the bakery store where you got your challah rolls every week and how terrible the grammar was. That was your sort of origin story for your career in copy editing. Tell me a little bit about that and also just more about getting started in this world and how you knew you loved language so much.

Benjamin: I say in the book that the story of my mother sending me to this bakery to buy rolls or black and whites or whatever needed to be brought home — I would bike up to the bakery. There was this sign in the bakery that said “Try our rugelach. They’re the best,” in quotation marks. I remember just staring at it. Even then, I had the notion that to put quotation marks around something indicated that what you are saying lacked a level of earnestness. I like to say that that’s my origin story. That’s how I became, at the age of ten, a copy editor even if I didn’t get around to starting to do that until decades later. The real thing, truly, my origin story, is — I remember asking my mother about this while I was working on the book. I said, “I don’t remember your teaching me how to read. I know that by the time I got to kindergarten I was already reading, but I don’t remember you teaching me to read.” She said, “I never taught you to read. I read to you. At a certain point, you started reading.” I’m not unique in that. I have heard variations on this story from a number of people. I do think still about that sort of magical thing that happens in a brain associated with language, but not merely imitating that that we hear when other people are talking, but to suddenly recognize as sound and symbol unite that this stuff on the page has meaning. I’ve always read incessantly. I was the traditional kid with his nose buried in a book. As to my getting into this professionally, when I graduated from college, I just embarked on this wonderful career of not doing very much at all. I liked it. I liked going to double features. I liked going to the zoo in Chicago. I liked working in restaurants and bars so that I had cash in my pocket.

Zibby: How did your mom feel about that?

Benjamin: My parents were sort of indulgent in that regard. They had never been the type to say, you must do this. I had been pretty self-motivating through the twelve years of basic school and the four years of college. Maybe after that, I just had enough for a while. I just wandered around and amused myself. At a certain point, you do recognize that you need to grow up. I was a bit at a loss. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a friend who was a published writer. I said, “There has to be something in publishing I can do.” He introduced me to the person who hired me to do my first proofreading jobs. From learning how to proofread, which I sort of faked my way into, I learned then how to copy edit. When you’re proofreading, you’re looking at a manuscript on which copy editing has occurred. I’m seeing the sort of dialogue that’s going on between the copy editor and the author. I found it very interesting. What I found as I was doing this work, this proofreading work and then after that, the copy editing work, was that I had a really good instinct for the work but based almost not at all on knowledge of it, real knowledge of it, terms. My education in the English language was, to put it nicely, rudimentary. I had to learn all this stuff. I had to learn what a subjunctive was. I had to learn how semicolons worked. I had to learn all of this. The funny thing really is that when you’re doing the work, when you are copy editing for a while, you learn it all and then you go back to relying on your ear and your eye. It’s good to know what things are called, but ultimately, it’s a conversation between you and a writer. It’s about hearing the words and seeing the words and getting them to work as effectively as they possibly can.

Zibby: I feel like I learned most of this stuff not in school, but when I had to study for one of those achievement tests to get into college when you get those study guides. I feel like that’s when you learn. I feel like sometimes in school, as much as they teach you, and I went to really great schools all the way through, they don’t stop and say, “No, no, no, you shouldn’t say you’re anxious for this. You should say you’re eager to do that,” and all these things. For whatever reason, when I learned all that stuff, when it was all spelled out to me, it stuck in my head more than anything. Forget all the other subjects and everything. Those are the things. Now whenever my husband’s like, “I was really anxious to do this,” I was like, “No.”

Benjamin: You were eager to do it.

Zibby: It bothers me so much. You have your whole chapter on pet peeves. I’m like, yes, these bother me so much for no good reason. There is grammar, obviously, taught in school, but I feel like maybe they just miss a little bit of this stuff.

Benjamin: It’s been a while since I was at school, but there’s so much going on. There’s so much to teach. There’s so much to learn. There’s so much to absorb. There’s only so much time.

Zibby: Yes, very true.

Benjamin: Yes, of course, I remember being taught the difference between a subject and a predicate, the difference between an adjective and an adverb. Basically, from my teachers who were my favorite teachers in elementary school, in high school, and in college, the ones that I appreciated most were simply the ones who helped me love to read, who were able to convey the excitement and the joy of what you can learn in reading, and not only learn. Reading is not just for learning. Reading is for art. Reading is for the love of it. Reading is for the pleasure of it. Unless you’re a pro, unless you’re doing this for a living, you do get to retain, for your entire life, I hope, the pleasure of simply reading a book for the pleasure of simply reading a book.

Zibby: Do you still enjoy the pleasure of simply reading books despite all the books that you work on?

Benjamin: You know, I do. I do. I have always been happy when the workday is over. I’m still working for Random House. I have time to read things that are entirely divorced from my job. I have certainly found in the last year since the descent on us of the plague that — I know I am not unique in this. My attention span is a little diminished sometimes. I watch a lot of movies on TV now. I do still read, but I find myself rereading things. There’s always been a great pleasure for me in returning to books that I love. Sometimes that’s really all I’ve got the strength for right now.

Zibby: I’m not a big re-reader. I reread a book I loved in my twenties recently. It was called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp.

Benjamin: Sure.

Zibby: Did you read that? I loved it. I loved it when it came out. I was like, oh, my gosh, I love this woman. Then when she passed away, I was so sad. It was like a friend had passed away. Then I was like, I haven’t read this in two decades. I wonder why I loved it so much. Then I went back and read it. Of course, you have a new set of life experiences that you bring to it, so you interpret it in a whole new way. It was just different. You relate to things completely differently. Maybe that’s the magic in rereading. I don’t know.

Benjamin: It can be if it’s a thing that you like to do. I’ve always been a crazy re-reader. I like to go back to books that I love and just go through them all again. One of the things that’s interesting now and one of the things that plays into my love of rereading is that I’m now at work on my next book which is to be called, unless anybody changes their mind, Dryer’s Fiction. In it, I am simply taking passages from works of fiction that I deeply love and trying to explain from a copy editorial point of view why they work and how they work. I hope that people will enjoy it just for the sake of seeing things broken down into their parts. Also, my intention is to — what can this teach you as a writer if you happen to be a writer? It’s going to be a lot of books that I love. What can we learn from Shirley Jackson, one of my favorite writers? What can we learn from The Haunting of Hill House? What can we learn from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? I was going to say from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I seem to like books that have houses in them. Now I’m going through my whole library and going back to these books and rereading them and finding things in them that I hadn’t necessarily noticed before.

Zibby: That’s really interesting.

Benjamin: So far, I’m having a very good time.

Zibby: I can’t wait to read that. That’s so cool. You touch on some of the things in this book of what makes a good description and how to introduce people in fiction a little more, but to go into past passages — essentially, copy editing, it’s almost like you’re the makeup artist of the talented celebrity. They have talent already, but they’re going to look so much better once you’ve had a chance.

Benjamin: That’s great. I love that. That is how I think of it. My job, as I like to say, is to help an author make their book into the best possible version of itself that it can be. It’s about polishing and refining and maybe just switching things around a little bit. Once a manuscript’s going into copy editing, the writer has presumably spent a very long time with it. As I certainly learned when I was in the editing process of my book, at a certain point, your eyes just roll back into your head at the very sight of your own words. It’s like, I just can’t see this anymore. I need somebody who’s not me to look at it and tell me where it’s not working, where it can be better. What I learned as a copy editor, learning that my job is to assist writers with respect and with a sense of, I don’t like the word humility, but a sense of, I’m here to help you. No copy editor can make a bad book into a good book, but you can always take a good book and make it a little better. You can make a great book — well, it’s great already, but let’s see what happens when we just tighten the screws a little bit.

Zibby: Yes, I love that. Maybe I’ll send you a little makeup kit so you can remember. Also, in the beginning of this book when you talk about the Wan Intensifiers and Throat Clearers and all the words you should try not to use like really and actually and all this stuff, I am going to take this challenge. I like to write for fun myself, so I am going to try for the next two weeks to not use any of these words. That is a big challenge because I feel like I use them a lot, especially just and of course and whatever. I’m taking your challenge to heart. I’m going to try it.

Benjamin: The thing is, there’s a reason why I put that at the very beginning of the book. People seem to find it highly amusing. Also, it’s so, so, so simple. Here are some words. Here are some words that don’t accomplish much. Let’s see if we can do without them. The thing, as I always do say, is, I’m not telling you how to talk. If you tried to regulate your own speech and stopped every time you were about to utter the word very or rather or actually, you would just stop talking. That’s not a good thing. Even when you’re writing, you can write those words down. If you’re actually writing something with the intention of letting somebody else see it, when you go back through it the second time is when you can prune, is when you can cut things out that aren’t helping you at all. I think one thing that’s very important for anybody who’s writing is that if you turn on the editorial switch too soon, if you turn on the editorial switch when you are in the act of composing, you will paralyze yourself. That’s not good. Do what you’re doing. I don’t write thoughtlessly. I don’t go into a trance and three hours later, there’s two thousand words and I’m like, oh, where did those come from? I write consciously. I do tweak a little bit while I’m composing, but you just sort of have to let yourself write. You can always fix it later.

Zibby: I think you’re so right. I think people just get caught up in, is this sentence right? Can I make this sentence better? Then they don’t go to the next sentence. Next thing you know, five years go by.

Benjamin: Nothing’s happened.

Zibby: Nothing. They’re like, why can’t I write a book? You’re absolutely right. The wrong switches got turned on. Maybe you’re more like a mechanic.

Benjamin: I think of it as being a cobbler. It’s a craft.

Zibby: A piano tuner.

Benjamin: A piano tuner, yes.

Zibby: We’ll just keep going with these. You’ve already given so much good advice. Do you have any parting for everybody who’s listening, maybe something that they didn’t know or something?

Benjamin: I’m just going to say that I think that one of the best things that anybody who is writing can do when they are trying to figure out what’s working and what’s not working is read your writing aloud. You’ll hear what’s wrong. I also think that there’s much to be learned for writers. There’s two things you can do as a budding or even not-so-budding writer if you really want to break things down and learn things. Read somebody else’s work aloud, your own work, somebody else’s work. An experiment that I tried once and I learned so much from it is take something you really love, lay the book in front of you, open up a Word file, and type it all out, like a short story or a chapter. The act of recreating somebody else’s writing with your own hands, with your own fingers, you’ll be amazed at how much you can learn. I think it’s a great way to meet somebody else’s writing and to help you figure out what the magic might be.

Zibby: Benjamin Dryer recommends plagiarism. More at eleven. That’s an excellent tip. I have not heard that before. That seems like a really fun thing to do. Why not? That’s really interesting. Very cool. Thank you so much. There’s so much I didn’t get a chance to ask you. It was lovely to meet you.

Benjamin: And you.

Zibby: Thank you again for all your tips and for putting a lot of debates to bed by having the actual answers out there in a book, particularly one I can share with other people in my family. Thanks. Have a great weekend.

Benjamin: You too. Thanks for spending time with me. I’ll see you.

Zibby: You too. Bye.

Benjamin: Bye.

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