Point of View: A Conversation With Cheryl Iverson

(Editor’s Note: Point of View is an occasional series that features an interview with someone in the world of publishing. You are already familiar with Cheryl Iverson from her thoughtful and well-reasoned answers to our “Questions From Users of the Manual” section—so it’s only fitting that she be the first victim participant.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS)

Cheryl Iverson does not peeve about her grammatical peccadilloes as one might imagine of a woman who has spent her career editing, overseeing editing, and serving as the AMA Manual of Style committee chair for the last 3 editions—she continues as co-chair of the 11th edition, a work in progress. Although one might say that she doesn’t have any major pet peeves when it comes to grammar, she does admit, “I still get aggravated at the incorrect use of apostrophes like I – t- apostrophe – s. Those are not things that I would be willing to treat lightly.”

But concerns about splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a proposition, “some of those rules that people learned in grammar classes in grade school 50 years ago,” would be better off forgotten. She speculates that people who no longer understand the reason for the rule will either avoid the use or argue adamantly about using, say, different from rather than different than when in the end it doesn’t matter if meaning is clear. “That’s what I think. It’s good that we’ve gotten away from these old rules without understanding where they came from, which makes it hard for people to know when to bend a rule or when to disregard a rule.”

However, such discretion at the start of her career was discouraged.

“When I was a new copyeditor, the stylebook was the Bible. It was all about ‘If you want to publish in our journals, this is what we do.’” The mandate was so deeply impressed on her that it wasn’t until her short stint at the University of Chicago Press in the books  department that she began to rethink the approach.

First, while editing a small book on ancient Egyptian irrigation systems, she assiduously looked up all the city names mentioned in the manuscript and changed them in accordance with her source, an effort that left the author less than pleased.  “He wanted them all reinstated.  He said that there is controversy about some of these names. ‘I don’t care if your source used X. I want Y.’”

The exchange made Iverson pause. “I stopped to think that consistency is far more important in a journal article because all of these articles that are edited by different people are grouped together, whereas a book stands alone, so if your author wants to use something quirky, that’s just that author and it’s just in that book.”

The vise grip of the conforming to the immutable-style-rules directive loosened again when an author challenged a style point, again while she was at the University of Chicago Press. So she brought her question to her supervisor and said, “I looked everywhere in the manual for this. I can’t find it. … This author wants to have such and such.”

“Cheryl,” the boss responded, “the manual is not a Bible. It’s just a guide.”

Iverson’s experience as a young copy editor is not uncommon. “When people are new, they want to know, What’s the rule? What’s the rule about? They want there to be a rule because rules help them”—especially when trying to explain their editing decisions to authors. “But then when you have been editing a while you’re more mellow. I don’t think it is a bad thing in other words. I don’t think it is a bad thing [to relax the rules] as long as you don’t get sloppy and let errors get through.”

Helping new copy editors navigate the rough terrain of medical articles that are filled with jargon, abbreviations, numbers, complex tables, and figures has been a singular pleasure. “I loved when a relatively new editor would learn the job,” Iverson said, describing how individuals would come to her and say, “‘I don’t know what to do with this table.’ Then later, they would come in and say, ‘This table is really difficult, but I thought I would do X.’ You could see that they were starting to develop their own judgment.” Although she remains in partial retirement, Iverson responds to questions from AMA Manual of Style users and posts answers on the AMA Style Insider blog. The questions range from as simple as how many spaces go after a period to as difficult as coaching a writer whose bosses disagree with a grammatical decision despite all kinds of evidence supporting her or his position. She responds to those questions with the same compassion and sense. And she receives the same pleasure in coaching them to resolution.

“I see [that] our job as editors is to facilitate reading so that you don’t have to stop and go back and say wait what did that say again?”

To illustrate her point she recalled a cartoon presented at a Council of Science Editors conference. In the cartoon, the characters debated, “Who is more important, the author or the editor?” Each character argued for the author or the editor until the final panel, which said “The reader is what is important. That’s who we are working for.”—Beverly Stewart